DENVER — Lobbyists work in the state’s capital to try to motivate lawmakers to vote the way their client wants, but 9Wants to Know found people have been playing both sides.
At least 13 lobbyists and firms have had clients on either side of a bill at the same time between 2021 to 2022.
“Wow. That doesn’t even seem right to me,” said Angela Lawson, the former manager of the lobbyist program at the Colorado Secretary of State’s office for more than 14 years. “Lobbyists or lobbyist organizations, and this is my opinion, should not be able to double-dip or be able to advocate on both sides of a position.”
While the 9Wants to Know analysis found this double-dipping happened at least 35 times since 2021, it is a rare occurrence considering there are hundreds of registered lobbyists and firms in Colorado. But, the lobbyists and firms are often funded by taxpayers: 54% of the flip-flopping positions documented by 9NEWS were hired by a school, city, town or county.
“Basically, taxpayers are paying for both positions to be done, and is that fair to the taxpayers? I don’t think that is,” Lawson said.
The firm Mendez, Barkis and Associates is the worst offender with nine instances of flip-flopping. On four occasions, they worked on behalf of schools while simultaneously working against them.
The firm opposed a bill about seizure training in K-12 schools for the Poudre School District while working with the Arc of Colorado to support it.
They opposed a bill that required governments to identify their capabilities to maintain electronic documents with government agencies for the Greeley-Evans School District while supporting it for the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District.
The Poudre School District, Greeley-Evans School District and the firm Mendez, Barkis and Associates did not return a request for comment.
Some other examples:
- William Mutch, who runs the firm Mutch Government Relations, opposed a sales tax on behalf of the City of Fountain and Town of Monument and supported it for the Charter Advocacy Coalition. He also opposed a bill concerning catalytic converter theft for the City of Fountain and supported it for the Town of Monument. The opposite positions overlapped for one day.
- Anne Barkis worked on behalf of the Greeley-Evans School District and the National Alliance on Mental Illness to oppose the expansion of Cannabis-based Medicine At Schools while supporting it for the Arc of Colorado.
- Mike L. Beasley, who runs 5280 Strategies, LLC, opposed Internal Election Security Measures for El Paso County and supported it for the Colorado Clerks and Recorders Association.
- Travis Berry, founder of Politicalworks worked on both sides of a bill that gave agriculture workers more rights.
9NEWS reached out to all lobbyists named in this report through multiple methods.
Mike Foreman, the Town of Monument town manager, said it made sense to see Mutch on opposing sides of some bills if the City of Fountain and Town of Monument took opposite positions. The municipalities agreed to split the cost of a lobbyist. He said they usually had the same view on issues, but the city and town could register on opposing sides if a situation called for it.
“We found it to be very effective and it was cost efficient for both sides too because I think both the Town of Monument and the City of Fountain were struggling considering spending that much money on a lobbyist,” Foreman said.
Mutch did not return a call but said in a text that the catalytic converter theft overlap was an error with the Secretary of State’s office. He said that the Town of Monument and City of Fountain were aware of any other lobbying and that these clients could speak to Mutch’s “solid ethics.”
On the sales tax issue, he said the bill was not a priority for either client and he told them that he worked for the other side.
“Immediately - the differing positions were known right away, so their positions were duly disclosed but I did not engage in the lobbying efforts for or against,” he wrote.
Foreman said they did not know of Mutch’s work opposing a bill that would exempt materials used to build schools from being taxed at the same time Mutch supported it for the Charter Advocacy Coalition.
“That’s not something we were aware of until just now,” Foreman said. “So I would have to talk to my mayor about that.”
Beasely said in a phone call that both parties were aware of his involvement in the Internal Election Security Measures issue and El Paso County opposed the bill to send a message.
Barkis and Berry did not return our request for comment.
Possible missing data
There could be other lobbyists working for both sides that we don’t know about. The data is self-reported by lobbyists themselves to the Secretary of State’s (SOS) website.
“It is the responsibility of lobbyists to file the proper disclosures required by law,” wrote Annie Orloff, SOS communications director, in a text. “The Department’s lobbyist disclosure data includes only that which is reported.”
9Wants to Know found a state lobbyist, funded by taxpayers, worked for a company at the same time that she tried to change the rules governing them. But this example did not show up in the data because it was not disclosed. The lobbyist involved told 9Wants to Know that this is because there was no double-dipping and instead the documents are wrong because of an error on her part.
Jennifer Mello, who runs August Policy Strategies, was paid by the Colorado Department of Education and by HopSkipDrive, which advertises itself as an Uber or Lyft for children that gets kids to school.
Mello claimed that the work she did for HopSkipDrive was unrelated to a bill before the Board of Education related to how the app should be regulated. She said her work with HopSkipDrive ended in summer 2020 despite Secretary of State records showing otherwise.
She said she made a “human mistake” and did not formally end her relationship with HopSkipDrive on the SOS website when she should have. Mello said she would never work on both sides of a bill because of her “integrity.”
“So I totally understand what you’re saying by the way it looks, based on the official records and the mistake that I made,” she said. “But I guess I would just like to say that is just not who I am. It’s not how I run my business.”
Mello said trust underpins lobbying. Working on both sides of a bill would destroy that trust and means she could not do the job.
“As a lobbyist, that’s disappointing to me because I don't know how you can work both sides of a bill,” she said. “That’s why we don’t do conflicts of interest. It’s just functionally impossible.”
HopSkipDrive would not answer questions about their relationship with Mello. Aylin Cook, a representative for HopSkipDrive, wrote in an email on Monday that they never hired Mello.
“We have no record of ever having engaged Jennifer Mello or August Policy Strategies,” Cook wrote.
Calls for the practice to be outlawed
Lawson called for rules explicitly barring lobbyists from working on both sides of an issue.
“It’s just not right. Especially with the power of interest that lobbyists have on the legislative process and just in general,” she said.
Current Colorado law requires lobbyists to tell clients about any conflicts of interest and bars them from engaging in “any other practice that discredits the practice of lobbying or the general assembly.”
Beasley, one of lobbyists mentioned in the report, said it’s “really important” to avoid conflicts of interest and there are already practices in place to prevent them. He said his contract requires him to flag possible conflicts as far in advance as possible.
“It’s a pretty well established kind of process for just about everybody,” Beasley said.
Beasley said if a conflict did arise, he may be required to give a client their money back so they can hire another lobbyist.
A spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office declined to comment further or on specific cases because of the possibility that cases identified by 9Wants to Know may come before them in a formal complaint.
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Reach investigative reporter Zack Newman through his phone at 303-548-9044. You can also call or text securely on Signal through that same number. Email: email@example.com. Call or text is preferred over email.
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