Secret recording prompts concerns about illegally gathered campaign signatures in Colorado

Denver7 finds voter registrations at hotels

DENVER -- A secret recording has had the Colorado Secretary of State's Office and the Denver7 Investigates team questioning if people paid to collect signatures for Colorado political candidates are following the law.

The issue boils down to time and money and if Colorado's elections process is worth either anymore given the hurdles campaigns must clear.

Numerous political candidates go through the petitioning process to get their names on voter ballots.  To accomplish that, they must collect a certain number of valid signatures from registered voters depending on the office they want to hold.  The work often requires them to hire a team of signature gatherers to assist.

"If you're not on the ballot, you can't win the election," Dustin Olson, co-founder of the Signature Gathering Company, said in an interview with Denver7 Investigates. The company most recently collected signatures for Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Robinson.

Olson said he started the company because the shoe-leather politicking involved in collecting signatures can be fraught with problems.

"Really, restore integrity to the process," he said of his company's mission.

As part of that, Olson has recorded proof with a self-identified signature gatherer who suggests they and their team are not following the law.

"Most of my people can't even register to vote because they're all felons. You know, most of them," the man, who identified himself as "Daniel Velasquez," said in the call, which Denver7 Investigates reviewed. "That's just me being honest with you. If you want to work with me, you're going to get those [signature] numbers, you're going to work with a whole bunch of rowdy individuals. You know, a whole bunch of rowdy individuals from the hood."

Olson said he recorded the call based on concerns raised by some of his employees who came across Velasquez in the field. He said he made the call after Velasquez first called his company about a possible job opportunity.

"After having that [phone] interview, I felt like I needed to take a shower," Olson told Denver7.

Olson, like other political campaign veterans, knows it is illegal for signature gatherers to collect signatures if they're in jail, on parole, not a Colorado resident, not a registered voter and not registered with the political party for whom they're working.

Velasquez said in the call he's from Florida, but also said he's a Colorado resident and registered Republican. He also said he was collecting signatures for, at the very least, the Walker Stapleton gubernatorial campaign in Pueblo. However, Colorado voter data does not show any Daniel Velasquez registered as a Republican in Colorado.

Furthermore, and equally as concerning, is that Velasquez told Olson he wants to work in a "lenient" workplace.

"You'll let me do almost whatever I want as long as I turn in, you know, papers," Velasquez told Olson. "Because as far as I'm concerned ... we're all just trying to make money out here."

Under Colorado law, signature gatherers must sign a notarized affidavit when they turn in their signatures swearing that they personally witnessed and gathered the signatures themselves -- and that they're legally eligible to do so.

According to Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, there was concern about Daniel Velasquez on that end too.

"We don't have any circulator by that name and we've checked the signatures that have been turned in," Williams said in an interview with Denver7 Investigates. Williams also listened to the phone call recording at Denver7's request.

The Stapleton campaign also said it doesn't have any record of a "Daniel Velasquez" working for them, nor does the company and its subcontractors used to collect signatures across the state.

Stapleton's campaign manager, Michael Fortney, also questioned the timing of the recording and its release in a statement to Denver7.

"We take all claims seriously. Our records show that the person in this recording never circulated petitions for the Stapleton campaign and we've directed the business we contracted with to collect our petitions to look into this matter. We are concerned about the motivations of Dustin Olson, the person who produced this audio. He held on to the recording for 3 weeks instead of turning it over immediately for review and still refuses to share a copy with our campaign. A further concern is Dustin works for Doug Robinson, and has both a profit-motive and political interest in this matter."

The Secretary of State's staff is still working to certify signatures for numerous campaigns, but said it has yet to find enough evidence to determine if the concerns about "Daniel Velasquez" are valid.

Still, based on what Velasquez said, he has someone else helping him clear legal hurdles collecting signatures, which would be a crime.

"I mean, what happens is that, is that the job gets done at the end of the day, you know, signatures get collected. That's what it is," Velasquez said to Olson.

Williams said the matter was a priority the moment his office received a complaint about the matter.

"We take the integrity of the elections process very seriously," he said.

His office has tackled other concerns over questionable petitions signatures before. Most recently, in 2016, his staff determined roughly three-dozen signatures collected for U.S. Senate candidate Jon Keyser were forged. The signature gatherer, Maureen Moss, later pleaded guilty to forgery charges.

Though the case involving "Daniel Velasquez" is unclear and difficult to investigate according to the Secretary of State's Office, no one knows yet if the self-identified Floridian is actually a Colorado resident.

However, a Denver7 Investigates analysis of recent voter data found supposed Colorado residents registered to vote at hotels at the same time signature petitions went into circulation.

For instance, people registered to vote at a Quality Inn in Pueblo on the exact same day in January. Though there isn't a "Daniel Velasquez" on that list, there are 9 people altogether -- all registered as Republicans.  All their registrations later became inactive because government mail sent to them bounced back.

Back at the Signature Gathering Company, Olson said his staff is diligent in making sure all of the signatures they gathered, along with all of the people hired to collect signatures, are valid and legal.

"Why I decided to actually do this interview, why I actually decided to record the conversation with the guy, is that if we are going to raise the level of integrity in the process, I think sunlight is going to make the difference- to actually shine a light on this," he said.

Questions about this story? Have a news tip or story idea? Contact Denver7 Investigative Reporter Ryan Luby by email or follow him on Twitter (@LubyDenver7) or Facebook.

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