If money is speech, then it stands to reason that a very small number of very wealthy people can effectively drown out the voices of the multitude on issues they determine worthy of a shout via their checkbooks. Currently in Colorado, the issues where this money/ speech is reaching the highest decibels are oil and gas extraction, aka fracking, and education issues such as the 2013 battle over Amendment 66 and the ongoing push by some for a school voucher system or other form of school choice.
Even before the Supreme Court’s controversial “Citizens United” ruling, campaign finance laws had blurred the lines between dollars and words.
It never seemed to matter that polls have long shown nearly 80 percent of us disagree with this notion that money is simply an extension of the voice we use to express our views and should therefore be unlimited. For decades, all that has really mattered is that the elected officials who could fix this broken system are the primary beneficiaries of its democratic shortcomings. Hence, money still talks and in Colorado, more loudly than in most places.
To understand how a handful of wealthy, influential individuals, along with the oil and gas industry and a few key political operatives, have managed to play puppeteer over our state government and even the electorate is quite complicated. That’s why we’ve included seven full pages of what I refer to as “influence maps” at the end of this article.
It has been more than a decade since Democrats came up with their now well-documented “Blueprint,” wherein four billionaires used their massive wealth to flip the state from red to blue. But after the 2014 election cycle, it is abundantly clear that the Republicans — along with a few key “Dems” — now have their own “Redprint,” which, like its blue predecessor, has worked quite well.
Substantially influencing a state’s elections, laws and regulations takes more than just spending $50 million dollars on TV, radio and newspaper ads, although that’s an important part of the equation. It also takes more than just filling the campaign coffers of politicians, although that too has its place.
In order for a microscopic minority of the monied to hold real influence over the rest of us and our democratic system of government, it requires creating the illusion that millions of people and nearly all the research on any given issue supports this minority’s specific point of view. This “illusion building” process is where the political operatives enter the picture.
In Colorado, I like to imagine this political slight of hand as a massive network of loudspeakers mounted on poles in every community across the state. Every few minutes the same message blares out over the speakers: “oil and gas and fracking are good for you because jobs, economy, freedom, American flag, natural gas is the new green, Middle East terrorists … blah, blah, blah.” The only thing that changes, in my imagined scenario, is who’s delivering the message, as nearly every blast appears to come from a brand new grassroots organization. Most of us assume these grassroots groups are made up of thousands of folks just like us. And besides, they have really intriguing names like “Citizens for the Environment Who Like Shale Oil,” or the “Clean Air Coalition for Freedom From Terrorists,” or “Mothers for Tar Sands.” You get the point.
Next, I imagine that all the wires coming from all the poles holding the loudspeakers form a giant interconnected web that covers the state like lace, but ultimately, all those wires lead back to just one small room in an office building in Denver. Inside that room, a handful of political operatives take turns at the mic pretending to be a member of the next new group who just has to tell you how much shale oil means to them while throwing in a bunch of facts and figures from seemingly credible sources, which, in the hands of these professional twisters of the truth, scare us into thinking the sky will fall, the economy will collapse and most children will go hungry if oil companies can’t stick rigs in the middle of our neighborhoods.
And that’s where this investigation comes in, because that room, or some wall-less facsimile thereof, does exist. So who is in that room, where do they get their facts and, more importantly, who pays for the whole operation are very real, very important questions.
About those facts
Editors Note: A few months back, Boulder Weekly agreed to pay for half the cost of a Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) request concerning certain emails at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business. We split the cost with Greenpeace, who submitted the CORA and then provided us our copy of the emails. In the end we were given more than 2,000 pages, some heavily redacted, most not. This investigation and the information in this article came entirely from Boulder Weekly’s own work. We had been tracking the creation of the oil and gas industry’s network of front groups and the Republican Party’s funding apparatus since the fall of 2014. These CORA documents helped us to further understand the complex interconnections of both.
I remember the first time I heard someone say they thought something fishy might be going on at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business. It was in October 2013, as we were pulling together our annual vote guide and endorsements package. I don’t remember who said it, but someone uttered something like, “Leeds must be on the payroll of ‘Vote NO on 66’.”
It wasn’t a serious accusation. It was simply a way of noting that Leeds’ research on the issue seemed out of step, and quite popular with the “vote NO” crowd.
The left-leaning Bell Policy Center had released an economic study claiming Amendment 66 — an education funding initiative that would have raised about a billion dollars a year by way of a tax increase — would be neutral for the state’s economy over the long-term. In addition, Colorado State University had also released research predicting a neutral economic long-term impact if 66 passed.
But not so with the Leeds School, whose research seemed to reach the opposite conclusion. Actually, Leeds simply broke its analysis into two reports. First, it created a report focused only on the very negative economic consequences of the tax increase. Then it created a second report that showed if the money decreased incarceration rates, dropout rates and created other educational positives, the tax hike could actually be neutral to slightly positive economically in the long term. The other reports simply chose to put all this information into one document declaring the amendment’s impact as neutral. Needless to say, critics of 66 only used the first negative report from Leeds for their purposes. The business school’s two-report logic, intended or not, certainly helped to defeat Amendment 66 at the polls.
To do its Amendment 66 analysis, Leeds used an economic modeling tool known as REMI, which was created by Regional Economic Models, Inc., hence the name. It was REMI that created findings that synced perfectly with the talking points bombarding the electorate by way of TV commercials paid for by the “Vote NO on 66” folks.
“Folks” is perhaps the wrong word here. “Vote NO on 66” was basically, albeit indirectly, funded by the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank in Golden, Colorado, associated with some of the nation’s most conservative organizations. When it comes to education, the Independence Institute’s positions seem to generally align with the Koch Bothers, the Walton Family trusts and some of Colorado’s wealthiest and largest Republican donors such as billionaire oil man Alex Cranberg and C. Edward McVaney, co-founder of software company J.D. Edwards. Cranberg founded the Alliance for Choice in Education (ACE) and McVaney is on the ACE board of Trustees. ACE is an organization many associate with the school voucher movement.
Still, at the time, we at BW assumed the “Vote No on 66” and negative REMI report similarities were a simple case of action/reaction. Who wouldn’t seize upon economic analysis from a respected business school if it just so happened to support your political position?
But then came the state’s fracking debate. Local communities, along with Boulder County, started passing moratoriums and outright bans on drilling and fracking. First there was Longmont, then Boulder, Fort Collins, Lafayette and Broomfield. It was clear that the oil and gas industry was losing the battle for hearts and minds along the Front Range.
So much so that those who opposed fracking and/ or supported community control over oil and gas extraction successfully gathered more than a quarter-of-a-million signatures, enough to potentially place two statewide initiatives on the November 2014 ballot. Initiative 88 would have called for a 2,000-foot setback for oil and gas wells from dwellings. Initiative 89 would have given communities the right to regulate the industry within their city limits, including an outright ban if so desired.
The oil and gas industry did not take this citizen revolt lightly. It fought back with its only real weapon — money, and thereby political clout.
The industry waged its war by creating incredibly well-funded oil and gas front groups like Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development (CRED) and Vital for Colorado (Vital). CRED was founded and is primarily funded by the two largest oil and gas companies operating in our state, Anadarko Petroleum and Noble Energy. CRED is also the group we have to thank for the endless bombardment of “fracking is good for you” TV commercials, which represent the largest single ad spend in state history. CRED is also the industry front group that paid for an entire section in The Denver Post, calling it the “energy and environment” section, which like the TV ads, was used to extol the virtues of fracking page after page, week after week. CRED clearly has money and lots of it.
More than one observer noted that media criticism of the oil and gas industry all but disappeared once the millions in ad dollars started flowing the media’s way. But that’s a story for another day.
But such tactics can only get you so far. In the end, what good are TV commercials, newspaper sections and industry front groups if they don’t have seemingly credible, third party, positive facts, figures and analysis to spout in support of the claims being made?
And then it happened again.
Right in the middle of the fracking debate, the Leeds School of Business started producing the economic analysis that seemed to perfectly fit the CRED and Vital and Gov. John Hickenlooper claims that the bans and setbacks and moratoriums were far too risky to the Colorado economy to be justified.
Leeds was producing REMI report after REMI report that the industry and its front groups wielded like a sword against their anti-fracking critics.
It all might have been explained away as a chicken and egg thing — Leeds produces its analysis, the oil and gas industry sees it, likes what it says and starts spouting its statistics — but for the fact that the second the reports were released for public consumption they could be found on the websites of CRED and Vital and other pro-oil front groups. It was clearly a coordinated effort. Similarly, politicians like Gov. Hickenlooper who support and are supported by the oil and gas industry were instantly quoting the reports as if they had been briefed (or even rehearsed) on the contents before the rest of us had even had a chance to view them.
It all seemed too organized, too fortuitous to be ignored.
REMI comes to CU
In July of 2013, just months before Amendment 66 would go before voters, the Leeds School of Business was approached with an unusual proposition.
The for-public-consumption version of the story that ran in The Denver Post and the various business papers said a recently formed organization calling itself the Common Sense Policy Roundtable (CSPR) had joined forces along with a couple of well established Denver area economic development groups — Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation and Denver South Economic Development Partnership — in order to make a significant purchase.
The story continued that the three groups pooled their money and bought the exclusive licensing rights to the Front Range for an economic modeling system called REMI, which was reportedly valued at over $800,000 for a five-year period. REMI was loaded with Colorado economic data and touted as being capable of analyzing potential economic impacts of things like ballot measures, oil industry importance to the economy, water issues, PERA, etc.
The story was that after the exclusive license was secured, the three groups approached the Leeds School of Business and then contracted the school to run the REMI analysis for them on a third-party basis. In exchange, the Leeds School would get free access to REMI, $110,000 a year for producing reports and another $38,000 a year to keep REMI updated.
The Leeds School then assigned the REMI project to the research team of Brian Lewandowski and Richard Wobbekind of the Business Research Division of the Leeds School.
In a recent interview with BW, Wobbekind, whose full title is executive director of the Business Research Division and senior associate dean of the Leeds School of Business, described the importance of the involvement of the two well-established economic development groups in the REMI project. He described how representatives from all three groups had sold the idea to the Leeds School. He said he knew that CSPR considered itself a “conservative think tank,” but claimed he wasn’t familiar with them. He said he knew and respected the other organizations and indicated that this familiarity was enough to make him feel comfortable with the REMI partnership. He even went so far as to say the Leeds School would not have agreed to the deal if it had only been CSPR proposing it. As we will see, that is an interesting observation.
But like I said, the earlier description of events was the for-public-consumption version that was fed to the press and reported in lockstep without ever checking the facts.
What Wobbekind apparently didn’t know, or has forgotten, was that the exclusive licensing for REMI had, in fact (according to information in the CORA docs), only been purchased by and is still owned by CSPR alone. An examination of CSPR’s 2013 Form 990 return shows a $224,411 expenditure for REMI which again seems to confirm that the tool was licensed by CSPR alone based on that dollar amount and the press reports of the tool’s cost.
Furthermore, the contract that assigned CU the rights to run REMI for CSPR is only between CSPR and the CU Board of Regents. There are no other signatories.
The contract does state that the data produced by REMI will be of interest to certain third parties, and partially funded by third parties, including chambers of commerce and others. It goes on to add, “These third parties along with CSPR and the Leeds School will review and approve projects and otherwise manage the REMI Program.”
Bear with me — there is a point to this level of contractual exactitude.
The contract goes on to say that CSPR alone has the power to authorize a “management committee” to manage and direct the REMI project. The contract also says the management committee will be made up of two members from CSPR, two members from the Leeds School and additional members from the third-party participants (funders) who are approved by the CSPR board of directors. And finally, the contract states that the management committee will “operate in accordance with a Memorandum of Understanding signed by members of the management committee.” Remember that last part.
So to recap, unlike what was reported by media at the time, CSPR, Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation and Denver South Economic Development Partnership were not all owners of the exclusive REMI license agreement and they had not all signed a contract with CU to produce REMI research. But those misleading news reports did make the project sound much more credible than it was. As the news reports described how the three groups were going to make their REMI research available to local and state governments to help them better understand complex economic issues — it sounded like a truly altruistic endeavor designed to make the world a better place.
But in reality, CSPR clearly controlled the project. It alone owned REMI. It alone had contracted CU to produce REMI research. CSPR had the power to choose who was on the management committee and only members approved by its board of directors could serve. The contract even noted that CSPR alone has full ownership over all the research and reports produced by the Leeds School using REMI. And it adds that CSPR can have as many funders of the REMI project as it wants and there is no provision that those funders be disclosed to CU. The contract never even mentions Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. or Denver South Economic Development Partnership, the two entities that apparently gave credibility to the REMI deal in Wobbekind’s mind.
The economic development groups and CSPR may have called themselves “partners” or the “consortium,” but by all legal measures, the REMI project was, and is, the property of CSPR.
In fact, according to an email from CU in response to questions regarding this contractual relationship, the two economic development groups contribute funding to the REMI project by way of a dues structure with CSPR.
The emails in the CORA release show that the Leeds researchers do seem to operate as if the three groups are more or less equals. They provide information to CSPR and the two economic development groups through representatives of the economic development groups who have been appointed and/or accepted to the management committee by CSPR. But the tone and content of the CORA emails also make it clear that CSPR is running the show, and they also clearly reflect that the Leeds School is well aware of the exact nature of the relationships of the three entities.
For instance, in the Leeds School/CSPR proposal for the REMI project dated April 25, 2013, the two economic development organizations are properly referred to simply as “funding partners” while acknowledging that CSPR, who contracted CU, is the sole owner of REMI. It reads as follows:
CSPR has contracted with REMI to provide the base economic models and Tax-Pl for three regions: Colorado, Denver Metro, and Denver South. The BRD (Business Research Division) research team will be the contracted model users. The team will apply its comprehensive understanding of the Colorado economy, debate economic assumptions, and run the REMI model for dynamic analysis on issues raised by the Board.
The Board will be comprised of representatives from the CSPR, the Metro Denver Economic Development Partnership, the Denver South Economic Development Partnership, and other funding partners, as well as two non-sponsor representatives from the University of Colorado.
Another email indicates that CU understands the structure.
All of this ownership and control business is important for several reasons: credibility, credibility and credibility.
For reasons that will become imminently clear shortly, If the Leeds School of Business were to create REMI reports that stated that they were created solely under contract for CSPR, who charges dues to funding partners like the two economic development groups, it is quite realistic to assume that both the reports and Leeds School would have their credibility quickly questioned.
For this reason, credibility, it is understandable why Leeds and/or CSPR would make efforts to make sure the other two groups share equally in the spotlight when REMI reports are released or discussed in the media.
But the Leeds School may have taken this “credibility washing” a bit too far. Despite being aware of the proper designation and role of each of the three players as evidenced by the proposal excerpt above, the fracking ban, the 2,000-foot setback, the Amendment 66 and other REMI reports all erroneously claim that the three groups are equals in the REMI project, having all contracted together for the license of REMI as well as having all together contracted the Leeds School to run REMI. These reports use the following language:
A partnership of public and private organizations announced in July 2013 the formation of a collaboration to provide Colorado lawmakers, policy makers, and business leaders with greater insight into the economic impact of public policy decisions that face the state and surrounding regions. The parties involved include the Common Sense Policy Roundtable, the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, and the Denver South Economic Development Partnership. The Business Research Division (BRD) of the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder was contracted by the consortium to provide third party, nonbiased research that objectively analyzes the economic impacts of public policy. This consortium meets quarterly to discuss pressing economic issues impacting the state. The group identified the study of a statewide economic impact of hydraulic fracturing ban as both relevant and timely.
The consortium licensed dynamic economic models from Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI) to study the economic impacts of policy.
It is subtle, but it is also not true. So who is responsible for this bending of the facts, Leeds or CSPR?
I should note here, that there is no evidence that would indicate that CU researchers have ever intentionally altered REMI research outcomes to suit the desires of CSPR or its funding partners. That is not the point, nor is it being insinuated here. But just because the facts and figures in a REMI report were appropriately arrived at does not mean that the process by which the Leeds School’s REMI research was assigned and enters the public debate is not being manipulated for political and financial gain by those who control the process. And those who control the process are not the researchers at the Leeds School.
I should also note that REMI has been considered a useful and respected economic tool for many years. Again, however, researchers who use such tools have reported that they, including REMI, can be and are often abused to create research that basically serves as corporate PR. There is no indication that the Leeds School researchers have done anything inappropriate… except perhaps not having been more curious about their REMI boss, CSPR.
Behind the façade (or why CSPR needs credible partners)
The Common Sense Policy Roundtable bills itself as “a non-profit free-enterprise think tank dedicated to the protection and promotion of Colorado’s economy.”
But pull back the curtain and CSPR appears to be little more than a front group for the oil and gas industry and Republican Party fundraisers being run by some of the most powerful, well-known political operatives in the Western United States.
CSPR was founded by Kristin Strohm, who now serves as the organization’s executive director.
Strohm is best known for being the cofounder of the Starboard Group, a relatively new organization already considered possibly the most powerful fundraising entity for the Republican Party in the Western U.S. Virtually every major office — state or national — won by a Colorado Republican in 2014’s red tide that swept over the state used Strohm’s Starboard Group to fund and even direct their campaign (see influence map page 28).
While Strohm is listed as the executive director of CSPR, she isn’t paid by CSPR. According to the organization’s Form 990 return, CSPR appears to pay no full-time staff. Instead, CSPR actually pays $60,000 a year to the Starboard Group for administrative duties. Strohm is paid to administrate CSPR by the Starboard Group.
Strohm is married to one of the state’s most notorious political operatives and oil and gas industry consultant Josh Penry.
You may recall Penry as the former Republican State Senator who worked closely with Democrats and then voted with them in order to push through the oil-and-gas-industry friendly Clean Air Clean Jobs Act in 2010. Penry boasted then that the act would increase drilling by 15 percent. He was right.
Penry later announced his run for governor but suddenly dropped out of the race just as his Democratic opponent, sitting Governor Bill Ritter, did the same. This unusual set of circumstances — which many political observers believe was far more than a coincidence — led to a relatively easy gubernatorial victory for former oil and gas geologist John Hickenlooper who had spent months behind the scenes convincing the oil and gas industry that he was their enthusiastic ally. He wasn’t lying.
Penry subsequently hit the revolving door into lobbying and “consulting” for the oil and gas industry. Watchdog groups from Polluter Watch to Greenpeace have referred to Strohm and Penry as the power couple of fracking, which also makes them the power couple of REMI.
Penry is currently the vice president of EIS Solutions, which helps its clients do things like create “grassroots mobilization” among other neat tricks.
Since it is impossible to actually sell grassroots support to corporate clients and their industrial practices, it would be more accurate to say that his firm specializes in offering its clients the illusion of grassroots support.
EIS is infamous for creating faux grassroots organizations often referred to as “astroturf ” groups. It is associated with the creation of several such organizations (see influence map page 24) but the total number is simply unknown. Such groups often appear, launch a smear campaign or mail out fliers with questionable information and then disappear before anyone can get the license plate of the political operative who hit them.
Another service EIS provides is collecting signatures from businesses and/or public officials on letters or petitions that say they support fracking. The petitions are then presented to city councils or other governmental bodies to create the illusion of broad support for fracking. In 2013, EIS Solutions was caught faking signatures in Fort Collins on such a petition that it had prepared on behalf of its client, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA). The petition was delivered to the City Council shortly before it was to decide the future of fracking within city limits.
The reason Penry and EIS are important here is because Strohm’s CSPR appears to be little more than an extension of, or at best a partnership of sorts, with EIS Solutions.
The only staff members listed on CSPR’s website besides Strohm are Tim Pollard, policy advisor, and Jake Zambrano, legislative liaison. These two also happen to be the chief operating officer and council (Pollard) and the associate vice president of legislative affairs (Zambrano) for EIS Solutions. The leaders of CSPR and EIS are married and they share the same staff. It’s safe to say it’s hard to tell where one starts and the other ends. There is additional crossover as reflected on the influence maps. For instance, Strohm sits on the board of directors for Vital for Colorado, one of the state’s two most powerful oil and gas front groups that works to further fracking and fight against any new oil and gas regulations that could harm the industry’s profits. And as you will see shortly, CSPR has been instrumental in trying to grow the influence and membership of Vital. Penry has occasionally served as a spokesperson for Vital at events and three EIS Solution staffers serve as consultants to Vital. It is a complex web to be sure, but it all leads back to the same room.
To fully grasp the true influences over CSPR and the REMI project, you have to look closely at CSPR’s seven-member Board of Directors (See influence map page 23) several of whom are also on its handpicked management committee overseeing REMI.
For example, Earl Wright is CSPR’s chairman. Wright is on the Board of the CU Foundation and chairs the investment committee, overseeing more than $1 billion in CU investments. He is also on the board of the Alliance for Choice in Education (ACE), an organization founded by oil billionaire Alex Cranberg who has ties to the Koch brothers and has been cited as one of the funding sources for the Independence Institutes’ Coloradans for Real Education Reform, which opposed Amendment 66.
Wright himself was also an invited donor to the Koch brothers secretive, invitation-only strategy session in Aspen in 2010 where the topics included how to reduce regulations on the oil and gas industry by debunking climate change, reforming K-12 education (read as choice/vouchers /privatization) and how to use universities to further the Koch agenda (can you say REMI?). And for an added topper, Wright is a member of the Vital for Colorado coalition and was picked by CSPR to be on the board overseeing REMI.
How this can influence things can be seen in the CORA emails as Wright works to get the researchers together with an oil analyst named Tom Petrie to discuss the state of the industry. As it turns out, Petrie was also an invited donor to the same Koch brothers 2010 Aspen strategy meeting as Wright attended.
That’s just one of the members. As the influence maps show, there are multiple members with ties to the Koch brothers — four CSPR board members own one or more oil and gas companies. One sits on the Board of the American Coal Council. Five of the eight CSPR board members are affiliated with Vital for Colorado either as board members or members of the coalition.
Consider board member Lem Smith. He is the director of U.S Government Affairs for Encana; director of the Western Energy Alliance, a group whose PAC is a client of Strohm’s Starboard Group. He is the assistant director of the Colorado Petroleum Association and of course has ties to Vital. There’s another CSPR board member who sits on the board of the hyper-conservative Leadership Program of the Rockies, which also has Cranberg and Koch brothers ties.
Another CSPR board member is Buz Koelbel. He has pretty good influence at the Leeds School, which is housed in the Koelbel Building, named in honor of his father Walter Koelbel following a $4 million donation to the Leeds School by the family. But he’s more than that. Buz Koelbel is a Republican activist who worked with Citizens for Fair and Legal Elections, which was the Republican front group that helped redraw the district lines in favor of that party. He is also a coalition member of Vital for Colorado. And as for those well-established economic development groups that helped persuade the Leeds School to do the REMI deal, Koelbel is the Chairman of the Board of one of them, the Denver South Economic Development Partnership. The President and CEO of the other one, the Metro Denver Economic Development Council, is Kelly Brough, who 5280 magazine named one of the most powerful people in Denver while describing her as one of the most outspoken proponents of the oil and gas industry in the state.
But Brough is far more than just outspoken. She is also a former chief of staff for Gov. John Hickenloper when he was the mayor of Denver. In addition she sits on the Advisory Committee of CRED as well as the board for Vital for Colorado. She is credited with actually having written the “Vital pledge” along with Colorado Concern President Tamra Ward. And lastly and most importantly, Brough is also a member of Colorado Concern, the colossal powerhouse of invisible politics. Colorado Concern is an invitation-only group that truly deserves the credit for making the “Redprint” possible, but more on them in a moment.
For now it suffices to say that while the two economic development groups who give the appearance of credibility to the REMI project are indeed large organizations filled with many well respected business leaders; both organizations also have leadership that could be best described as political and who are currently instrumental in the oil and gas industry’s war with those who oppose drilling/fracking in their communities.
So CSPR — and even its more credible funders — are hardly the non-partisan economic development crew that the Leeds School says it thinks it has partnered with on REMI.
Instead, the consortium that is actually running REMI could be described as the who’s who of pro-oil industry/conservative education activism that is being steered by the “power couple of fracking,” one of whom is credited with raising more money for teapartyesque Republican candidates, 527’s and PACs than anyone in the Western United States, while the other specializes in creating the illusion of citizen support while working for a firm known for its “dirty tricks,” politically speaking.
And a deeper look at CSPR starts to turn up other, even more disturbing connections and practices for a group partnered with one of the state’s most respected business schools.
A few clicks into the back of the CSPR website and the “think tank” appears to be a group of political operatives producing selective research at just the right time to assist some of the nation’s most powerful industrial forces in achieving their political goals. Consider just these two agenda items from the CSPR’s 2014 Strategic Plan:
Strategic Objective 2.3: Vital for Colorado
Phase One: by April 2014, help Vital for Colorado secure pledge forms from minimum 100 businesses, associations or business leaders.
Phase Two: by April 2014, release fracing (sic) ban study to Vital to use as education tool.
Ongoing: Have board participation at all levels and launch Vital across the state.
Translation: CSPR is Vital.
Strategic Objective 2.3: Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFPF)
Phase One: by April 2014, finalize plan for 2014 with AFPF on fiscal policy issues to research.
No translation needed here. AFP Foundation is the Koch brothers. It at least appears that the Leeds School may just have another silent partner it doesn’t seem to know about.
Despite the public accessibility of such information, it appears — based on conversations with the Leeds School research team — that no one within the business school was aware that its contractual overseer for its REMI partnership was working with the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity Foundation or working to spread the influence statewide and increase the membership of one of the most powerful oil and gas front groups in Colorado.
But such discoveries require a different kind of research than what the Leeds School is used to. It seems safe to assume that CU doesn’t do any digging to see who its potential partners are when they come baring expensive gifts (REMI) and cash.
When I asked the REMI research team if they had any inkling who Strohm or Starboard Group or Penry or EIS Solutions were in the political world outside of REMI, they said they had no idea.
That may be true but there were clues that could have made the Leeds School at least a bit suspicious about its REMI Partner.
For instance, why did CSPR seem to have such close ties to Vital for Colorado and CRED?
Even before the REMI reports on the impacts of a statewide fracking ban and the 2,000-foot setback were ready for release, Strohm was already setting up briefings and presentations for all “the pro-energy groups” and for the governor.
The CORA docs show a level of activism on the part of Strohm that is hard to ignore. She called meetings to decide how to get the 2,000-foot setback study into the hands of the Hickenlooper Oil and Gas Task Force so they could “use it as tool going forward.” A calendar entry said it even more succinctly: “Coordinate task force testimony with study highlights.” Coordinating the testimony of a governor’s appointed task force is well beyond the standard operation of a few economic development groups releasing a research paper. But CSPR likely had an in with the pro oil and gas members of the taskforce, as the influence maps show.
And remember, this is the same task force assembled as part of the supposed compromise between Gov. Hickenlooper and Rep. Jared Polis that resulted in Polis not turning in the quarter-of-a-million signatures that would have put two “anti-fracking” measures on the 2014 ballot including a 2,000-foot setback measure and a local control measure, known as Amendments 88 and 89 respectively.
The Leeds School might not have known that CRED and Vital and CSPR all share some of the same board members (see influence maps) and plot their strategies together, but it should have recognized from the emails and meetings that the relationships were more than cozy.
And what about the 2013 Amendment 66 REMI research? A quick look at the CSPR website would have told the Leeds School that CSPR was already an activist supporter of school choice and vouchers and had posted studies praising the results of the controversial takeover of the Douglas County School Board in order to push school choice. They even used the REMI Amendment 66 research to further make the point just weeks before the election in their own newsletter, which they sent to the Leeds School’s Wobbekind. There’s no way to know if he actually saw it.
CSPR’s October 2013 newsletter ran a front page story about all the jobs and money that would be lost if Amendment 66 passed and followed it with a story praising how choice had turned Douglas County into one of America’s best school systems. The message was clear: it doesn’t take a tax increase to have better schools, it just takes school choice and conservative leadership. The juxtaposition of the two pieces by the political operatives running CSPR said all you needed to know about the “think tank’s” motives for ordering up a REMI study on Amendment 66 (in two parts).
Another clue might have been an email wherein Strohm thanked everyone for their efforts and then said she was off to a meeting with the anti-Amendment 66 group Coloradans for Real Education Reform an hour before the report was to be released. I’m sure the Independence Institute put on a great celebration.
It’s difficult to understand how Strohm’s constant and clear pattern of involvement with political organizations tied to issues being pushed forward as REMI projects wasn’t more cause for concern. But that appears to be the case. Nothing in the CORA documents indicates that anyone at CU or the Leeds School ever raised an issue over how REMI research was being used in the real world.
This is the larger point: The Leeds School’s REMI research may be completely accurate, but it is being intentionally assigned, and its releases timed, to enhance its value as a political tool that can support the agendas of CSPR, CRED, Vital and the school choice movement, all of which are acting under similar strategic plans because they are all being guided to a shocking degree by the same small group of people, which includes those in charge of REMI by way of CSPR.
So that’s where the credible facts and figures come from and more importantly, how they make their way into all those TV commercials.
But running a network of loud speakers on polls in every corner of the state like the one being controlled by CRED, Vital, EIS Solutions, CSPR, Starboard Group and the rest of the gang is very expensive.
The influence maps at the end of this article tell most of the story of how the oil and gas industry/Republican’s “Redprint” works. The state’s largest Republican donors, and many of the most powerful, wealthy and influential folks in Colorado, can be found in Colorado Concern and the Alliance for Choice in Education. Their money/speech flows into Strohm’s Starboard Group by the tens of millions of dollars as well as into CRED and Vital and the rest. To get a quick understanding of the “Redprint” and how it is quickly flipping Colorado from blue to red, it helps to know from where the idea originally came.
But first, a quick side note
I have one last observation about CU and REMI before we move up the “Redprint” food chain. It’s about that Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) I asked you to remember earlier.
Of all the documents that really shed light on the varying roles of the REMI participants and establish the fact that they are not equal, this document is it. It explains that CSPR is the sole license holder of the agreement with REMI. It sets out that CU will be running the REMI program per an agreement with CSPR. It confirms that CSPR alone has created a management committee that includes representatives from the two economic development groups pursuant to joint funding agreements between the two groups and CSPR.
It explains the process for management committee membership. Each participating member has to submit its committee appointments in writing to CSPR. CSPR gets to appoint the chair of the committee. The CSPR board of directors has the right at any time to access information or work product of the management committee. And most importantly, the activities of the management committee are subject to review by the CSPR board of directors.
The MOU leaves no doubt who is running the REMI show. Whatever management committee powers CSPR grants to its funders, in the end even those are subject to CSPR board oversight.
And how about this jewel: No work product of the REMI program, including reports, can be disclosed by any participating member unless the management committee approves the release. Ever. Let me translate that.
CSPR and its funders can research any issue they choose, but they have no obligation to release any reports that don’t match their political purposes. CSPR and its funding partners may not be able to significantly influence the Leeds researchers’ findings, but by holding the power over what does and doesn’t get released, they still ultimately control the REMI project outcomes in that fashion.
CU failed to provide a copy of this MOU in our CORA request even though they should have, in my opinion.
In fact, the MOU contains a paragraph that even states, “This agreement is not considered confidential and is subject to disclosure under CORA.” That’s pretty clear, but CU still didn’t comply.
What I got from CU in the original request was an old email exchange from Strohm saying the MOU was attached along with five pages of giant black squares. They were 100 percent redacted. This despite the fact that the document itself states that it is available to share under CORA.
Clearly there was something fishy going on. Why black out a document that actually says it is sharable under CORA? The answer is someone at CU didn’t want us to see the MOU for a reason known only to CU.
In response to an email request for further clarification on the relationships between the participating parties, I was finally given an unredacted copy just prior to going to press, but it came with a peculiar explanation. I was told that the unredacted copy of the MOU I was given was not identical to the MOU under the black squares.
I was then told that the MOU under the black squares had been withheld from the CORA request because it was considered attorney client privileged material because it had been given to legal for an opinion. Which left me trying to figure out what I was holding in my hand since apparently it wasn’t attorney client privileged and wasn’t even the same doc as what was under the black squares. Eventually I was told that the MOU I was given had never been executed by CU, which was true.
My copy did have the signatures of Kristin Strohm for CSPR, Thomas Clark for Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. and Mike Fitzgerald for Denver South Economic Development Partnership, all dated from June 2013. None of the signatures were notarized or witnessed and sure enough, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Russell Moore’s signature was missing.
I was eventually told that how my copy of the MOU differed from the one under the black squares was that the redacted copy had even less signatures. In other words, there was no legally binding MOU in place for the participating groups in the REMI project.
CU Senior News Editor Julie Poppen told me that the groups had been operating under the terms of the MOU even though it appears there has never been a fully signed copy.
The moral of the story: someone needs to explain to CU’s records department that you don’t get to black out documents that have been requested under CORA simply because you don’t want people to see them. That is a privilege reserved solely for former Secretaries of State.
I still don’t know if the document was withheld because it so clearly showed that the parties were never equals in the REMI project or if it was because the university didn’t want anyone to know it had screwed up and was operating without an enforceable MOU agreement. In the big picture, it only matters because it makes me wonder what else is under all those other black redaction boxes in our CORA request. But enough about black, let’s get back to red.
Red to blue to red
A lot has happened in Colorado politics over the last decade or so. In
2003, Colorado was a red state, a really red state. Republican Bill
Owens was governor; substantial Republican majorities controlled both
the state House and Senate; Colorado’s two senators at the nation’s
capital were Republicans as were five out of seven of the state’s
Not only was Colorado red, it was supposed to be red because there were
simply more registered Republicans in the state than there were
Democrats, which back then used to actually have an impact on election
But times change. As is well known to most politically knowledgeable folks in
Colorado, four billionaires — Tim Gill, Jared Polis, Pat Stryker and
Rutt Bridges — along with a few very astute political operatives led by
strange-bedfellows/deal-maker extraordinaire Ted Trimpa, hatched a
scheme to turn the state blue back in 2003 and it worked.
By 2004, Democrats controlled the Colorado House and Senate and one U.S.
Senate seat had changed colors. By 2008, Dems had added the governor’s
mansion, both senate seats and three out of five representatives.
Colorado was no longer red. It wasn’t even purple. Colorado had become a
bright blue example of what could be accomplished politically with
enough money and great strategy, even in a state where Republicans still
You could fill a book with all the details of how “the Gang of Four” (the
name given to Gill, Polis, Stryker and Bridges) accomplished their
amazing feat. In fact, that’s exactly what Rob Witwer and Adam Schrager
did in their incredibly revealing 2010 book The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).
What the Gang of Four did was transformative, if not particularly
democratic. These ultra-wealthy individuals built a web of
donor-controlled organizations that worked together to promote exactly
what the donors wanted promoted. Charitable organizations, PACs, 527’s,
new faux “news” outlets under the control of the donors, watchdog groups
that watched only who and what they were told to watch, and activist
organizations centered around the environment, gay rights and other
social justice issues all worked together to promote the donor’s agenda
while giving the all-important appearance of broad popular support. It
was a pricey manipulation of the system, but an effective one.
In fact, it worked to perfection for several years.
While Republicans were making gains all across the nation, the Gang of Four —
who eventually blended in with other high-powered Democratic donors to
become known as the Colorado Democracy Alliance — were having wild
success in Colorado. It seemed only one thing could threaten their
“Blueprint” plan — a plan predicated on outspending Republicans by huge
margins in strategic races — and that was the ever-looming possibility
that someone on the other side might be willing to spend even more than
them to create the same kind of operation, a “Redprint” for lack of a better term.
It appeared unlikely for a number of years that anything of the sort would
happen. While billionaires Gill and Stryker and many-times-over
millionaires Bridges and Polis were laying out millions on every
election cycle, the largest single Republican donors were giving
$200,000, tops, in any given year.
But then the oil and gas industry got a little ticked.
Democrat Bill Ritter won the 2006 gubernatorial election and he started talking
about renewable energy and clean air. He even passed some new air
regulations on the oil and gas industry. Oops.
There are more than 52,000 oil and gas wells in Colorado. One good size well
pad in Weld County can generate as much as $22,000,000 all by itself.
In other words, make the oil industry mad and the $10 million that the
Gang of Four was spending to blow away Republicans suddenly looks like
The very short answer as to what happened next is that in order to keep the oil
industry’s money on the sideline and not overturn the Democrat’s
“Blueprint,” a few deals with strange bedfellows had to be made.
Political operative/lobbyist Ted Trimpa is often credited with coming up with the
plan to keep the oil industry at bay. If he didn’t think of it, he
certainly gets credit for pulling it off. It no doubt helped that he was
the political strategist for the largest Democratic donor in the state,
Tim Gill, while simultaneously serving as lobbyist for two of the
state’s largest oil and gas companies, Encana and Noble Energy; strange
The looming threat was that the oil industry was going to make sure it
spent enough free speech to get Ritter out of office. Such an
expenditure would likely have turned out Republican voters in sizable
numbers impacting all the down ballot races as well. Democrats feared
losing their majority in the legislature as well as the governorship.
Republican candidates running against Ritter at the time included then Republican
Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry (remember that name?) and Republican
Scott McInnis, whose campaign was being handled by the Gang That
Couldn’t Shoot Straight, making him little threat to the Democrats.
Long story short, Ritter proposes the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act in 2010
giving the oil and gas industry a better market for their natural gas
and increasing drilling activity all across the state. That’s the peace
Ritter and Penry are both running for governor but suddenly decide to drop out of the
race. The day he leaves office, Ritter gets a cushy job running Pat
Stryker’s pro oil and gas foundation up at CSU, Penry becomes a lobbyist
and oil and gas consultant. And oil and gas geologist and lover of all
things hydrocarbon John Hickenlooper strolls easy into the governor’s mansion. Oil wins the day, and Democrats keep the state blue.
By 2012 it was becoming clear that a citizens’ movement against oil and
gas development/fracking was increasing in intensity. The activist 20
percent of the Democratic Party was rebelling against Hickenlooper and
other oil-friendly Dems. Republicans seized the moment.
It wasn’t hard to figure out a “Redprint” strategy. Republicans just started doing what the Gang of Four had done.
Colorado Concern, an invitation-only group made up of the wealthiest
individuals; conservative foundations and investment firms; powerful
corporate leaders, many of them from the oil and gas and development
sectors and a handful of political operatives, lobbyist and law firms,
have joined the new red war.
To understand what drives Colorado Concern and its critical roll in the
“Redprint,” you simply need to go to its website and read. It clearly is
the organization setting the agenda from top to bottom. Consider these
lengthy excerpts from the website and think of them in terms of CSPR’s
REMI projects as you read. I’ll add my own notes in bold print.
The website reads “Colorado Concern has developed a strong and positive agenda for 2015, including:
Aggressively advocating for the economic benefits of our state’s vital
oil and natural gas industry – and the tens of thousands of jobs it
generates across Colorado. Responsible energy exploration remains under
attack, and we will continue to stand up against these anti-jobs
assaults. [Even the language is a wink and a nod to Vital of
Colorado and Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development. Leeds has
issued multiple REMI reports on fracking and setbacks and oil and gas
job creation.] • Expanding opportunities for homeownership by
reforming our state’ s outdated construction defects laws – laws that
prevent the construction of attainable, affordable condominiums, which
are often the first rung on the ladder of homeownership. [Leeds School was asked to prepare a REMI-like report on construction defects.] •
Launching a statewide conversation about how to boost the integrity of
the current ballot initiative process and protect our State Constitution
from continuing to become a cluttered virtual coatrack of competing,
and occasionally contradictory, policy preferences. [Colorado
Concern wants to make it impossible for citizens to exercise direct
democracy via ballot initiatives. CC lobbied for passage of HB 1057,
which passed and forces financial impact statements to be placed on
petitions attempting to gain signatures for ballot initiatives. This was
in essence a preemptive strike against the anti-fracking movement’s
announced 2016 initiative effort. Colorado Concern was also the force
behind the two pro-oil industry ballot measures — Amendment 137 and
Amendment 121 — that were traded as part of the Hickenlooper/ Polis
compromise that killed the anti fracking ballot measures. One of those
measures was designed to make it extremely expensive to put ballot
initiatives up for a vote.]
Our mission is to ensure that the decisions that are made by our elected
leaders, and through direct democracy at the ballot box, are aligned
with a vision that leads to a healthy, robust and growing economy.
AREAS OF FOCUS
Colorado Concern engages in three primary areas:
legislative advocacy, ballot issue campaigns and statewide candidate
Legislative Advocacy: Promoting and protecting a pro-business environment requires a
constant watch on what is under way at the State Capitol. Colorado
Concern has two lobbyists focused on this effort. Key areas of interest
include our business climate, as well as cornerstones of our economy,
such as education reform and its relationship to the development of our
future workforce; a functional and financed transportation system that
allows for the movement of both goods and people; and efforts to control
or reduce the cost of health care to employers.
[“Education reform” — there it is. Colorado Concern opposed Amendment 66 and as the influence maps show, it has significant cross membership and leadership
with Alex Cranberg’s hyper-conservative Alliance for Choice in
Education. Transportation is on the upcoming REMI Agenda as is a REMI Medicaid report.]
Ballot Issue Campaigns: Coloradans enjoy the right to vote on key measures
through direct democracy. This requires serious engagement from the
business community both to support issues of keen interest and to oppose
those we believe impact our quality of life. Colorado Concern’s
activities in this area include campaign oversight, education of the
broader business community and substantial financial support.
[Can’t be more clear than that. This is where the money to fight anti-fracking ballot measures is coming from.]
Statewide Candidate Elections: Elected leaders who understand and support the key
principles of a strong business environment are key to our state’s
future economic success. Colorado Concern members—through the
organization’s Political Action Committee (PAC), its “Business
Opportunity Fund” (527), and individual contributions—promote candidates
who understand and embrace that philosophy.
[And this is where Starboard Group’s expertise comes in. It is important to
point out that Starboard Group has publicly stated that when it comes
to deciding which Republican candidates they will work with, that is a
decision that is made by Starboard’s major donors. Colorado Concern
controls the “Redprint.”]
As the influence maps show, the lines between the old pro-oil-and-gas Democratic “Blueprint” and the new Republican “Redprint” are a bit blurred as the state’s single largest Democratic donor, Tim Gill, is a member and on the board of Colorado
For years critics of the “Blueprint” have argued that the Gang of Four’s takeover
of Colorado politics was far more about creating a pathway to gay rights
than about creating Democratic Party success. There is ample evidence
in the public record that this claim may be at least somewhat grounded
in fact. Gill has been actively placing gay and gay-rights supportive Republicans into positions of power within his organizational sphere. The powerful Gill Foundation is now headed by a Republican and Gill has supported the campaigns of several Republicans who have been outspoken supporters of gay rights.
What Gill’s apparent willingness to support Republicans and the
hyper-conservative Colorado Concern agenda means going forward for
Democrat’s, particularly the anti-fracking, activist 20 percent of the
party is anyone’s guess.
I should point out that Gill’s longtime political strategist Ted Trimpa in on the Advisory Committee of CRED.
And those aren’t the only examples blurring party lines. There are a number
of influential Democratic Party donors and political operatives that
are a part of Colorado Concern. However, the organization largely skews
Republican by a good percentage.
As for other Dems in the group, Hickenlooper’s former chief of staff Kelly
Brough is a member. She too sits on the advisory committee of CRED as
well as being the president and CEO of Metro Denver Economic Development
Corp., one of the two funding partners of CSPR on the REMI project.
This could help explain why the Leeds School seems to be constantly
running a REMI report on everything considered a priority for Colorado
Concern’s 118 well-healed members. Brough is not the only close tie
between Colorado Concern and Gov. John Hickenlooper. Colorado Concern’s
Cole Finegan, like Brough, is also a former Hickenlooper chief of staff
from his time as mayor.
I’m not implying that such familiarity has made Hickenlooper popular at Colorado Concern but consider this point just for fun.
In 2014, everybody from Cory Gardner to Ken Buck to Mike Coffman to Wayne
Williams all rode the Starboard Group and its money/speech to victory.
Only one prominent Republican came to Starboard and left without the
support he sought: Republican gubernatorial nominee Bob Beauprez.
Without Starboard, Beauprez raised far less money than Hickenlooper and
was the only major loss for the Republicans that year. Since we know
that the donors call the shots for Starboard, maybe the folks at
Colorado Concern think that Hickenlooper makes a pretty good Republican.
He certainly aligns with many of the group’s core values and policy
positions. Just saying.
Finally, consider that there is a good deal of crossover in leadership and
membership between Colorado Concern and Alex Cranberg’s Alliance for
Choice in Education (ACE). ACE holds many big Republican donors and
Cranberg himself has been referred to as Colorado’s largest donor to
Republicans. When oil and gas billionaire Cranberg isn’t at the top,
another ACE board member often is, C. Edward McVaney, former president
and founder of JD Edwards. Other trustees of ACE include Tom Petrie, Lou
Hutchinson and Peter Dea.
Petrie as you may recall is the Koch-connected oil analyst who was recommended
to the REMI researchers. Hutchison is president of H-D Asset Management
and was also one of the founding board members to REMI’s CSPR.
Dea is on the board of Encana, owns Cirque Resources
and was appointed to Hickenlooper’s Oil and Gas Task Force. As noted
earlier, Colorado Concern and ACE had connections with no less than six
members of Hickenlooper’s Oil and Gas Task Force, which is a fair amount
of representation. That likely explains how Strohm could coordinate the
Task Force testimony with REMI research findings.
In all, ACE has 11 board of director members, 67 board of trustee members,
90 members on its advisory board and 39 associate board members. Among
those are dozens of oil industry execs and some of the largest, most
conservative family trusts in Colorado.
Between ACE and Colorado Concern, there is enough money to run a small country. And that, is the new Republican “Redprint.”
The agenda is set at the top by the money. The dollars flow to CRED and
Vital for Colorado and politicians and 527s and PACs via a number of
paths, many controlled by Starboard Group who administers CSPR along
with help from EIS Solutions. CSPR, and to a far lesser degree its
funding partners, control the REMI project, which is used to bolster
public opinion on the issues important to the funders at the top.
You have to wonder what CU’s leaders think about their business school’s
connection to all this political maneuvering. Maybe I can catch CU
President Bruce Benson next time he’s coming out of a Colorado Concern
meeting and ask him. Yes, he is a member and also has a history of
setting up 527s to boost the Republican party. Jack Finlaw, president
and CEO of the University of Colorado Foundation, is also a member of
Colorado Concern so it doesn’t seem likely they will be demanding any
changes at the Leeds School any time soon. But back to the “Redprint.”
Along with the money that sets the agenda, there are strategists and
implementers such as Kristin Strohm, Kelly Brough, Tamra Ward, Ted
Trimpa, Josh Penry and dozens of other operatives running front groups
of one sort or another all aimed at moving money around or creating the
“illusion” of broad support. There are clearly outside forces assisting
with the ongoing rollout of the “Redprint” as well, including the Koch
brothers and likely other Coloradans who attend Koch brothers
invitation-only donor strategy sessions such as Denver billionaire
Philip Anschutz, who occasionally shows up as a donor but seems more
invisible than many other players.
What does all this mean? It doesn’t bode well for Democrats. With gay
marriage and increasing civil rights for gays now a reality in Colorado,
will we see a pullback in Democratic Party funding by Gill and Stryker?
With the oil and gas industry money now in full play and directed by
the forces described in this article, can any Democrat who supports
fracking bans and community control get elected at any statewide level
of government? Will the citizens of Colorado be able to overcome all of
this money speech to finally get a community control ballot
initiative before the voters? Let’s hope so. It would be a shame if a
handful of people in a room in Denver wind up running our government and
destroying our environment simply because their money is louder than