A Denver judge will rule later this month whether the Douglas County School District violated the Colorado Fair Campaign Act. Judge Hollyce Farrell’s Dec. 10 announcement concluded nearly two days of testimony stemming from former school board candidate Julie Keim’s allegation against DCSD.
The hearings, held Dec. 2 and 10 at the downtown Denver Office of Administrative Courts, focused on district officials’ actions leading up to the hotly contested Nov. 5 school board election.
Highlighting the Dec. 10 testimony, Keim’s attorney introduced an email intended to discredit witness Franceen Thompson, and DCSD’s legal counsel Robert Ross deflected a question citing attorney/client privilege.
Keim, who failed in her bid to win a seat on the school board in November’s election, filed her complaint in mid-October after several incidents aroused her suspicion that the district was attempting to influence the election outcome. Most notable among her concerns: The public release weeks before the election of two paid, pro-district papers — initially presented by DCSD as independent evaluations — written by the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess and former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett. In September, Bennett also gave a public speech on the issue in Lone Tree.
Keim’s complaint also alleges district leaders attempted to hamper the distribution of challenger candidates’ campaign materials, promoted one-sided candidate events and gave candidates unequal access to information.
Four candidates who support the board’s recent reform efforts, including two incumbents, were elected Nov. 5 and recently took seats on the board. Keim was among a slate of four who wanted to take the district in a different direction.
Most of the testimony presented Dec. 10 was directed by attorney Jason Dunn, hired by DCSD for the case. Dunn’s witnesses included Ross, Thompson, a parent who helped lead the reform slate’s campaign, district security staff and two principals.
Ross said the district stayed neutral during the campaign, explaining, “The mantra is the district staff is Switzerland when it comes to school board elections.”
He testified he found no evidence to support Keim’s concern that board members planned to conduct an audit on her based on a 2011 school fundraiser coordinated through the Douglas County Educational Foundation (DCEF). Keim raised the concern after board member Justin Williams allegedly wrote a fall 2013 Facebook post suggesting an audit was imminent.
Under questioning from Keim’s attorney, Craig Joyce, Ross acknowledged board member Doug Benevento, recently re-elected to his post, is also a DCEF board member and probably had access to the nonprofit fundraising organization’s financial records. Williams, however, was unlikely to have such access, Ross acknowledged.
When Joyce asked if Ross knew Williams obtained the information about Keim’s financial exchange with the DCEF, Ross paused.
“I don’t know that I can discuss this further without violating attorney/client privilege,” he said.
Judge Farrell agreed he was within his rights.
Thompson, a volunteer with the pro-reform campaign group DougCo Champions for Kids, also stumbled under questioning from Joyce after denying attempts to link the word “reform” to board-friendly candidates.
Saying he was offering it for impeachment purposes, Joyce submitted a September email between Thompson and fellow Douglas County Republican Ken Riley in which Thompson wrote that “reforms poll well,” and “tying the reforms to the candidates/board is helpful.”
Thompson acknowledged she had written the email.
During closing arguments. Joyce said the district made indirect contributions that benefited the reform slate’s campaigns, while Dunn said no evidence exists to support that claim. Joyce pointed to “a pattern of behavior” evidenced through “curious timing and fortuitous coincidences which we don’t think are coincidences.
“There’s a lot of smoke here and a few flames of fire have come through that smoke,” he said.
Dunn countered by saying the Hess and Bennett papers for which the district and foundation paid did not constitute any wrongdoing.
“A school district has an obligation to communicate with taxpayers about what they’re doing and the direction the school district is going,” he said. “They simply provided no evidence of intent to help specific candidates for the school board.”
He also said proof of a violation of state statute “must be concrete,” which according to him, Joyce didn’t provide.
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