The intimidation of democracy

People gathering signatures for setback initiative claim harassment

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Mark Goodman

People gathering signatures for Ballot Initiative 97, which would increase the minimum distance between oil and gas development and homes, schools and other vulnerable areas to 2,500 feet, are claiming protesters are being organized to stifle their efforts and deter citizens from signing.

Colorado Rising, a group promoting Initiative 97, has alleged that signature-gatherers are facing targeted protests verging on harassment in Boulder, Denver, Fort Collins and Greeley. They’ve documented on audio and video recordings protesters interrupting conversations, and have engaged police in several situations to determine whether protesters are committing criminal acts of harassment.

Colorado Rising informed the Colorado Secretary of State about volunteer signature-gatherers feeling intimidated, but since the office has no investigative authority, according to Ben Schler, internal operations and legal manager, it refused to look further because it felt the claims would be criminal matters, thus referring Colorado Rising to District Attorney’s offices.

The Boulder County District Attorney’s Office is currently reviewing one such case to determine whether or not charges should be filed. Public Information Officer Catherine Olguin declined to provide further information because the investigation is still active, but said a meeting on the matter was held on July 23.

It’s not definitive who is funding and organizing the protesters, but Boulder Weekly talked with signature-gatherers, protesters, and oil and gas representatives, and reviewed several documents that begin to uncover how and why the signature-gathering effort for Initiative 97 is being disrupted.

Micah Parkin, executive director of 350 Colorado, claims there have been more than 100 incidents of people being harassed and intimidated while gathering signatures.

“We’ve had young women frightened and crying after being followed by these men for hours and all the way back to the office,” Parkin says.

Parkin says petitioners have been advised to cite state law that prohibits people from interfering with elections or “willfully suppress(ing) any initiative or referendum,” when confronted with protesters.

The protests appear to unfold the same way, according to those who’ve come in contact with protesters: First, signature-gatherers set up somewhere and begin to collect signatures. Eventually, protesters in groups of two or three approach the location where signature-gatherers are working, often with poster board rolled up. The protesters unroll their protest signs and stand near the signature-gatherers, attempting to discourage potential signers by saying things like, “Don’t sign,” “Bad for business,” or, “Protect Colorado jobs.” Other protest signs have read, “Would you give this guy your information?” and “Protect Colorado Families.”

The protests appear to be effective in deterring both potential signers and those collecting signatures.

Parkin relayed the story of Gina Hardin, a 62-year-old Denver woman, who, Parkin says, in the act of gathering signatures for Initiative 97 at a Denver farmers’ market, was followed and harassed for hours by two men. In an affidavit, Hardin says that shortly after she arrived at the market, two men in their early 20s approached her, each carrying a poster board, one saying “Keep CO Economy Strong,” and the other saying, “Bad for Business…” According to the affidavit, Hardin says the two were initially polite, “saying they were being paid by the Denver Economic Development [mumble].” But, she said, their physical position became intimidating and subsequently impeded her ability to gather signatures.

The two then allegedly followed Hardin as she crossed streets trying to get away from them. She called 9-1-1 and asked for an officer to come. “The men were humored by this,” Hardin stated in the affidavit. An officer then came and said it was unclear whether the men were violating any law with the exception that they had admitted to him that they were following her. The officer then left, and the two men redoubled their harassment and became more aggressive, according to Hardin’s affidavit.

“They stood between me and whoever I was trying to talk with, speaking loudly over me and putting their posters in front of me and between the person I was attempting to speak with and me,” Hardin said in the affidavit. She said she then fled to her home, calling police again on her way. An officer was waiting for her at her house.

Another similar incident hints at what might be motivating protesters.

Two protesters in front of Boulder Public Library told a Boulder Police Department Officer that they were employed by an organization that supports fracking, according to an incident report filed by Boulder Police Officer K. Williams. The two protesters informed Williams that they were engaged in counter-protest to express their First Amendment rights, according to the report. Williams further reported that the individuals indicated they were tasked with going to various locations in the city, where contact with the public was likely.

Regarding the incident, signature-gatherer Ken Bonetti stated in an affidavit that soon after he began taking signatures for Initiative 97, “Two young males arrived with two large hand-lettered signs, one sign saying something to the effect [of] people should not trust me and another about the need to protect Colorado jobs.” Bonetti said that they stood between one and two feet of him, sometimes directly in front of him, and told a passerby not to trust him or sign the petition.

In the affidavit, Bonetti said that the two men told passersby that if they signed the petition Bonetti was circulating, their information would be made public. “I felt this was a blatant attempt to intimidate voters during a legally sanctioned electoral activity,” he said, according to the affidavit. Bonetti then relocated to the area outside the Boulder Public Library, and 30 minutes later, the same two men arrived and resumed disrupting his petitioning efforts, according to the affidavit. Bonetti, “fed up and quite annoyed by the men,” then reportedly called the police and requested an officer be sent to the scene.

According to Williams’ report, the officer advised Bonetti and the two protesters that given the context of the disagreement, no criminal charges would be pursued at the time. “I explained due to First Amendment considerations the incident would be documented, researched and forwarded to the appropriate legal resources for additional review if and as necessary,” Williams wrote.

Colorado Rising

According to internal documents reviewed by Boulder Weekly, the political committee Protect Colorado appears to have requested that individuals, known as “ambassadors,” report the specific location of individuals gathering signatures for Ballot Initiatives 94 (concerning a severance tax increase) and 97, as recently as June 20. There could be as many as 1,800 ambassadors, according to a 2015 presentation given by former Anadarko lobbyist Chris Castilian.

Protect Colorado was co-created by Anadarko and Noble Energy to defeat oil and gas ballot measures in Colorado. Protect Colorado has received nearly $11 million in contributions since the beginning of 2018, with the majority coming from Anadarko, Extraction Oil and Gas, Noble Energy and PDC Energy.

The internal documents reviewed by BW, which are in the form of e-mails, request that ambassadors report signature-gathering activity to Protect Colorado by directing people to send information to an e-mail address or via a text line, using the code word “CANVASS.” (We tested the text line, and got an immediate response: “Where did you see a canvasser in your area?”)

In response to our request to confirm the documents and answer what Protect Colorado does with locations of signature gathering, the group offered this statement via Karen Crummy:

“We are exercising our First Amendment rights, which includes asking people to think about and read what they are signing. We have also asked the public and oil and gas employees to let us know when they see individuals gathering signatures on the 2,500-foot setback measure. This is standard practice in modern campaigns.  We get asked about the activities in the field and want to understand what is going on. Monitoring opposition is important. The proponents of these bad measures monitor us as well.”

Advocacy groups funded by and sympathetic to oil and gas interests, such as the Colorado Economic Leadership Fund, have also been running ads on TV urging people not to sign the petitions.

Indeed, the stakes are high for those with financial interests in the oil and gas industry.

Initiative 94 proposes an increase in severance taxes paid by the oil and gas industry for minerals extracted from Colorado, stating, “In Colorado, the oil and gas industry pays an effective severance tax of only 1.5 percent; but, in the neighboring states of Wyoming and New Mexico, the oil and gas industry pays an effective severance tax of 6.5 percent,” according to the initiative. It continues, “It is the intent of the people of this state to require the oil and gas industry to pay its fair share in severance taxes and stop exploiting Colorado’s natural resources and people.”

According to the Colorado Legislative Council Staff’s fiscal impact statement, if passed, Initiative 94 will increase oil and gas severance tax revenue by $148.3 million in FY 2018-19 and $307 million in FY 2019-20, with ongoing increases in future years. The increased revenue would be used to establish all-day kindergarten in Colorado public elementary and secondary schools; and medical care and treatment for people suffering negative health impacts caused by oil and gas production in communities impacted by oil and gas production.

According to the same state research, Initiative 97 constrains well location and “thus potentially reduces future oil and gas development in the state, particularly in heavily populated counties,” adding production in the Julesberg Basin in northern Colorado will be the most affected. Thus, according to the statement, if passed the measure will reduce development and therefore the income of the oil and gas industry and services associated with it, along with any severance-tax-funded programs at the state level. But the statement concludes that since the economic conditions and geographic limitations affecting oil and gas production in Colorado are uncertain, the specific reductions in state revenue cannot be estimated.

Further, according to the statement, increasing the setback distance may preserve property values for homeowners most affected by oil and gas operations and, to the extent less development improves health outcomes for affected residents, may increase productivity and reduce medical costs.

The effort to promote oil and gas activity at the ballot box isn’t only about protesting initiatives 94 and 97. Industry supporters have also begun circulating their own petitions.

On June 20, the Committee for Colorado’s Shared Heritage was registered by Shawn Martini, formerly of HBW Resources, an energy and natural resources consulting firm. This political committee’s purpose is to pass initiative 108, which apparently seeks to economically insulate the oil and gas industry via takings claims, from any impacts from Initiative 97, and potentially Initiative 94.

Proponents of 108 include Michelle Smith of Quiat Companies, whom BW readers might remember as the “Front Range organic farmer” who appeared in a 2014 pro-fracking ad produced by Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development (CRED), pointing out the importance of mineral royalties from oil and gas to her “organic-based” farm. As of 2014, Smith and her husband also personally owned minerals — not beneath her farm, but in Garfield County. Chad Vorthmann, executive vice president of the Colorado Farm Bureau and proponent of 108, also serves on the advisory committee of CRED.

The oil and gas industry is also backing initiatives to insulate itself from potential impacts relative to local government regulations, including initiatives 178, 179, 180 and 181.

The lingering question isn’t who, but what: What impact will protests have on signature-gathering efforts as the deadline of August 6 approaches?

BW asked a citizen, who engaged one of the protesters and then signed the petition, about his experience. Robert Walton of Fort Collins said of the protesters, “Their sign said, ‘Don’t sign,’ and so I asked them, ‘Why not?’ And he said, ‘It’s bad for business.’” Walton says the protester was reading off the back of his sign, adding that he didn’t seem to know what he was talking about.

Walton says he asked the protester, “What businesses?” to which the protester replied, “Business.” Walton says he was never able to get another answer.

Walton asked the protester if he was being paid, and he said he was not, but Walton didn’t find him convincing regardless. “I was hoping to hear the other side of the argument, and I heard nothing of value from them at all,” Walton says, adding the protester seemed to have no knowledge of the topic at all.

If the oil and gas industry or its proponents are indeed going to such lengths in order to prevent Initiatives 94 and 97 from making the ballot in November, then they probably believe there is a strong chance that Coloradans will approve them. But in the meantime, signature-gatherers like Bonetti and Hardin will have to wade through the ruckus to get their petitions signed.