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Colorado voters received fortune cookies in the mail as part of a political attack ad

Who polices misleading political advertising?
Posted: 7:56 PM, Oct 24, 2016
Updated: 2016-10-24 21:56:17-04

JEFFERSON COUNTY -- Colorado voters recently received fortune cookies in the mail as part of an attack political ad.

The cookies were sent in a business card-sized box to voters in State Senate District 19 in Arvada and Westminster.

Republican State Sen. Laura Woods has a rematch with Democratic challenger Rachel Zenzinger. Woods defeated Zenzinger in 2014 by 663 votes.

The winner could determine which party controls the state Senate. Currently, Republicans hold an 18-17 edge.

The fortune cookie box has a photo of Zenzinger, a red plane with the word "China" on it and money falling behind it. The box reads, "Enjoy a cookie and read your fortune inside." It was sent from the political group, "Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government" (or CCAG).

In the past three months, Denver7 and its partner, PolitiFact, have rated two CCAG campaign mailers attacking Zenzinger "Pants On Fire," the worst rating reserved for ridiculous statements. 

On Oct. 19, Zenzinger filed a complaint with the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office accusing CCAG of repeatedly attacking her with the same false campaign mailer: She had voted to use taxpayer money to take a trip to China.

The fortune inside the cookie says, "Past actions are the best predictors of future behavior, so remember Zenzinger's actions" and directs you to a website that does not reference the China claims.

The cookie also comes with a business card that reads: "Please enjoy this fortune cookie to commemorate Rachel Zenzinger's vote for a taxpayer-funded trip to China while serving on the Arvada City Council."

Zenzinger has never been to China and ultimately voted to not use taxpayer funds for a trip to China.

She said the latest attack by the group Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government (or CCAG) "represents a new low in Colorado political campaigning...Some desperate Republican henchman decided at some point it would be better to create this outright lie, rather than lose the election and possibly lose majority control of the Senate."

On Monday, an official for Colorado Voters for Accountable Government told Denver7 the group's lawyers advised them not to comment on the dispute because of the pending complaint with the district attorney

The group has been running what's known at the "China Girl" attack ads against Zenzinger since the 2014 election.

There's also a current television political ad paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that connects Rep. Mike Coffman with Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump.

"Coffman said that he would support Donald Trump for President," the ad states.

On Oct. 7, Denver7 broke the news that Coffman was calling on Trump to step aside. In an interview with Denver7 over the summer, Coffman said that Trump had not earned his vote. At the time, he said he was considering a Libertarian vote.

Denver7 wanted to know, besides us, who polices these types of political claims.

"A candidate, such as Ms. Zenzinger here, can file a complaint with the district attorney's office," said political law attorney David Fine.

Fine, who used to be Denver's City Attorney, also previously represented the Colorado Democratic Party, but is not currently affiliated with the group.

There is a state law that makes it a misdemeanor to make, "False or reckless statements relating to candidates or questions submitted to electors."

"I think the point of the law is to deal with, sort of, blatantly untrue comments and recklessly untrue comments and statements, however the law is relatively toothless," said Fine. "The worst that could happen is you're convicted of a misdemeanor, and the 'you' is completely unclear."

Zenzinger's complaint, and any complaint under this statute, gets forwarded to the District Attorney's Council. The council selects a handful of DA's to review the complaint and determine if the law was violated and if charges should be filed.

"For this complaint to be investigated and prosecuted during the election cycle, (it's) not going to happen," said Fine.

"Is it fair?" asked Zelinger.

"Is it fair? I think when you enter into the political world, nothing is fair," said Fine.

One of the China ad PolitiFact fact-checks was on Oct. 19 for a mailer stating: "When Rachel Zenzinger was on the Arvada City Council, she voted to spend taxpayer funds for a junket to China. She wanted taxpayers to pay the bill for her airfare, lodging, transportation and food." This is the mailer the candidate filed a complaint about with the district attorney.

The mailer implied that not only did Zenzinger vote to take a taxpayer-funded trip, but she went to China, too. In a mailer photograph, the group inserted a traditional Vietnamese bamboo hat on Zenzinger’s head with a Chinese rooftop in the background.

On July 5, Denver7 and PolitiFact checked another CCAG mailer that said, "While serving in the city council, Rachel Zenzinger voted to use tax dollars to take a taxpayer funded junket to China." We also rated that mailer Pants on Fire.  

There are key problems with the group's attacks on Zenzinger.

While on the Arvada City Council in 2013, Zenzinger made -- and then voted for -- a successful motion explicitly prohibiting the use of taxpayer funds for a proposed sister-city delegation to China.

No city officials ever went on the trip. But you wouldn’t know that from the mailers, or a 2014 TV ad called "China Girl" that targeted Zenzinger, who was running to hang onto her Senate seat.

In April 2013, Zenzinger was a newly appointed Arvada City Councilwoman who took part in a motion regarding a sister city agreement with the Chinese city of Jinzhou.

The council members were discussing an invitation from the mayor of Jinzhou to send an official delegation from Arvada to the 2013 World Landscape Art Exposition.

A nonprofit group, Arvada Sister Cities International, recommended that the invitation be accepted and that an official delegation -- including Arvada city officials, members of the local Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Arvada Sister Cities -- attend the Jinzhou expo.

Councilman Bob Dyer made a motion to accept the group’s recommendation and send a delegation to Jinzhou, according to the meeting minutes. The motion made no mention of funding for the trip, according to the minutes.

Mayor Marc Williams said he was uncomfortable using public funds on the trip.

The mayor said "since he understands the motion includes sending delegation members from the city at city expense, he cannot support it," according to the minutes. However, he said he would back sending Zenzinger as the elected representative if her travel was privately funded.

Zenzinger voted for the Dyer motion to send a delegation, but it failed, 4-3.

Zenzinger then made her own motion, saying if a city delegation were sent, no taxpayer money would be used. "Mayor Pro Tem Zenzinger clarified ... that if Sister Cities is unable to fund them, then we would come back and decline the invitation," according to the minutes.

Her motion passed 5-2.

The current mailer that the DA is reviewing cites a comment that Mayor Williams made to PolitiFact in July. "Did (Zenzinger) support a motion that would have funded through city funds the opportunity for her to go? Yes, she did," the mayor said.

But the flier doesn't mention that the mayor stressed that Zenzinger also made the subsequent successful motion "with the explicit direction that no city funds be used." The mailer also left out that the mayor said: "My negativity toward their ad is that it implies that she actually took that trip, and she didn’t."

Zenzinger disagrees with the mayor’s interpretation of the first motion.

"Yes, I voted to approve an ‘official’ delegation, which meant that an elected official would make the trip," Zenzinger said in an email. "The funding for the delegation was not addressed until the subsequent vote."

Ultimately, no city officials or employees went to China because no private funding was found.

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