$230,000 filing fine shocks Silverton candidate

Democrat unaware of ongoing penalty

The Colorado Secretary of State’s office is fining Patrick Swonger, of Silverton, $230,000 for late campaign filings.

Contacted on his personal cellphone, Swonger said he was shocked to learn of the fine.

“I didn’t know anything about that. I closed that out so long ago – I don’t know anything about it to be honest with you,” he said.

Asked if he could afford it, he said, “Heck, no!”

Swonger attempted to run as a Democrat for the 59th House District in 2012, but the Colorado Democratic Party disqualified his candidacy on a bitter technicality, making room for Rep. Mike McLachlan to run without facing a primary.

At the time, Matt Inzeo, communications director for the Colorado Democratic Party, said party rules stipulated that candidates must be registered for “a period of at least 12 months immediately preceding the date of the general election.”

The next general election was to take place Nov. 6, 2012.

Swonger registered as a Democrat on Nov. 7, 2011.

It seems political deadlines continue to be the mechanism of Swonger’s ruination.

Colorado Secretary of State Communications Director Rich Coolidge said Swonger had accrued the $230,000 fine because he stopped filing campaign reports with the Secretary of State’s office in May.

Every day since May 7, 2012, when the first filing was due, Swonger has been fined $50. But then he missed the next filing, too, meaning the fines rose to $100 a day, then with the passage of the next deadline, to $150.

Now – having missed 14 consecutive filings – he is being fined, daily, $700, for a grand total of $230,000.

To put this number in context, the federal government fined football player Michael Vick, who did prison time for running illegal dogfights, $5,000.

The University of Colorado – Boulder fined a student it found guilty of raping another student $45.

Just a few months ago, the Environmental Protection Agency fined Maralex, an Ignacio company that dumped oil and gas by-products into the water system, $89,000 for multiple violations of the Clean Water Act.

Even within the context of politics in Colorado, Swonger’s $230,000 tab is steep.

In 2011, Doug Bruce, who was convicted of four counts of felony criminal activity – including money laundering, attempted improper influence of a public official, and tax fraud, was fined $49,000.

Coolidge said it appeared that letters sent to Swonger informing him of the fines had been returned in the mail.

Coolidge said Swonger could apply for a waiver with the Secretary of State’s office, but that Swonger had to move quickly or the bill would be sent to collections.

“Basically, he needs to stop the meter running, cancel his candidate committee, and then apply for a waiver from our office. Usually, we can waive these fines, but constitutionally, you have to apply for a waiver within 30 days, or we have to send it to collections. There’s not a lot we can do,” Coolidge said.

Coolidge said Swonger’s debt, while perhaps exorbitant and unfair, was not without precedent.

“Unfortunately, this has happened in the past. I think there was a district attorney candidate in Trinidad, he just stopped filing his reports, changed address – by the time we tracked him down his tab was about $230,000.

“We’ve had some that have racked up over $1 million in fines,” he said.

Coolidge said under Colorado campaign finance law, there is a basic inequity, in that issue committees can rack up enormous fines and “there is no personal liability, whereas candidate committees are personally liable, that’s why candidates are hit far harder.”

Coolidge said this was an issue where Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler had “taken on a leadership roll, to say if you need a waiver, here’s how it works.”

Swonger’s fine seems like an area ripe for bipartisan collaboration. He said he would call the Secretary of State’s Office right away.

“I’ll get to the bottom of it,” he said.

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