Colorado Newspaper Props Up “Extremely Thin” Ethics Charge Against Democratic State Senator

Colorado newspaper The Pueblo Chieftain is credulously reporting on an alleged “ethics complaint” by Democratic State Sen. Angela Giron, which, according to a Colorado ethics watchdog group, will be “almost certainly dismissed as frivolous.”

The Chieftain's reporting on the complaint -- that Giron posted her state email address and phone number on her campaign website -- is latest piece of questionable Chieftain coverage of the recall campaign targeting Giron over her support for stronger gun violence prevention laws.

Following the Colorado General Assembly's passage of legislation to expand background checks on gun sales and limit firearm magazine capacity to 15 rounds, Giron and three other Senate Democrats who supported the gun violence prevention measures were subject to recall petition drives. On July 18, a Denver judge certified recall petitions against Giron and Senate President John Morse, setting the stage for a September 10 recall election.

According the top local news story in the August 3 edition of the Chieftain, “An Avondale man sent an ethics complaint in an email to the Colorado Secretary of State's office Friday” alleging that Giron “is using her state-provided email address and phone number on her campaign website.” The complainant reportedly does not live in Giron's district, but contacted the Secretary of State because “he is not a fan of her politics, especially her votes on the state's gun control laws.” The story also quoted Becky Mizel, chairwoman of the Pueblo County Republican Party, who falsely claimed that “Angela Giron has chosen to use state resources and taxpayer money for her own political gain,” and added that she was “disgusted” by Giron's actions.

In response to the Chieftain article, left-leaning political blog Colorado Pols noted that a number of Colorado state legislators -- both Republicans and Democrats -- feature state contact information on their campaign websites. In fact, a Media Matters review of Colorado's 100 General Assembly members' campaign websites found that 53 members listed a state phone number, e-mail address and/or mailing address.

Furthermore, the allegation against Giron is likely baseless and was not accurately reported by the Chieftain.

In an interview with Media Matters, Colorado Ethics Watch Director Luis Toro called the allegations against Giron “extremely thin” and predicted that the complaint would “almost certainly [be] dismissed as frivolous.” Toro noted that his assessment of the complaint was based on the contents of the Chieftain article as the complaint has not yet appeared on the Colorado Secretary of State website.

Toro told Media Matters that the allegations in the Chieftain article are not properly described as an ethics complaint, but would instead be correctly termed a campaign finance complaint as the complaint concerns Giron's conduct as a candidate, not as a legislator. He added, “The paper would do well to understand the difference between an ethics complaint and a campaign finance complaint” and that it “would be helpful for them to understand the underlying law” so that its readers could be informed as well.

Asked about the permissibility of using state contact information on a campaign website, Toro explained that “the reason everybody does it is because it's legal,” and -- noting that no money is involved in the allegation against Giron -- added that “what's illegal is using state funds to contribute to a campaign.”

The Chieftain's coverage of the complaint against Giron follows an incident where the newspaper's general manager Ray Stafford emailed Giron to express his displeasure with her support for stronger gun violence prevention laws and the revelation that other newsroom employees, including the Chieftain's assistant publisher and vice president, signed the petition to recall Giron.

On March 3, while the legislation was still under consideration, Stafford sent Giron an email from his work account which stated, “I am the General Manager and responsible for the entire newspaper, including the newsroom ... I have never written a legislator, but I want you to know I oppose all the bills currently being considered involving guns, ammunition, magazines and ownership transfers because I think they're poorly written and a knee-jerk reaction to recent deaths. I also believe such legislation is a challenge to our Second Amendment.”

Stafford was criticized for noting his role as general manager in his email by Chieftain assistant publisher and vice president Jane Rawlings, who said that, “A person who works for us should identify this as their personal opinion and he did not state those words in his email, 'this is my personal opinion' and he probably should have.” Rawlings, however, added that Stafford's email should not be seen as an attempt to pressure Giron with newspaper coverage.

Appearing on The Rachel Maddow Show, Senate President Morse said that Stafford “threatened [Giron] with how he's going to cover her and then followed through, really, she was in the paper and on the front page for a week, practically a week straight, including with pictures that weren't very flattering, almost deliberately.” Fox affiliate KDVR noted that Morse's characterization of the Chieftain's coverage of Giron was correct and that the paper regularly referred to her as the “key vote” on gun violence prevention legislation:

The newspaper's coverage of the gun control measures has repeatedly defined Giron as the key vote on bills to mandate universal background checks and banning high-capacity magazines and referred to her in its headlines. In reality, with both measures expected to pass by a vote of 18-17, every Democratic yes vote is potentially a swing vote. 

On July 28 ProgressNow Colorado revealed that Stafford, Rawlings and Chieftain production director Dave Dammann all signed a recall petition against Giron. This fact was not disclosed by the Chieftain, and instead the paper's editorial board dismissed subsequent conflict of interest allegations, writing that “we maintain our news coverage of [Giron] has been fair and balanced.”