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Attorney general under fire for conflict of interest in refusal to investigate Trailhead


State Attorney General John Suthers
  • State Attorney General John Suthers

Attorney General John Suthers is facing renewed criticism that he dodged his responsibility to investigate attack phone calls that targeted Democratic lawmakers. Several contributors to his 2006 election campaign are closely tied to the Trailhead Group, the political nonprofit behind the calls.

"We need someone who will stand up for integrity in office," says Cindy Knox, an organizer with Citizens for Integrity in Government, a fledgling group that organized a protest against Suthers late last week in Denver. "The attorney general obviously has too many conflicts to do that."

Protesters say they wanted to support several Democrats, including Rep. Michael Merrifield, of Manitou Springs, accused in phone calls by Trailhead of trying to conceal "secret payments" from a shadowy group called "Research and Democracy." Last year, the group spent more than $83,000 on mailings that benefited Democrats.

Colorado Democratic Party Chairwoman Pat Waak and several lawmakers, including Merrifield, maintain the lawmakers never received secret payments, and want a criminal investigation of the calls under a new state law that aims to eliminate character assassination in politics.

After soliciting the opinions of several district attorneys some of them Democrats last month, Suthers' office concluded it had no legal basis to launch such an investigation.

But Waak and protesters like Knox, also a Democrat, argue that Suthers has little political motivation to investigate Trailhead, because he has accepted campaign contributions from several of the group's financiers.

Last year, beer magnate Pete Coors, a conservative Republican, supplied $100,000 to Trailhead and $999 to Suthers' campaign, according to various elections records.

Other Trailhead financiers Bruce Benson, president of Benson Mineral Group, and Courtland Dietler, a "self-employed executive" from Denver each contributed $1,000 last year to Suthers' campaign.

Deputy Attorney General Jason Dunn, speaking on Suthers' behalf, strongly denies that the contributions influenced Suthers' decision not to investigate.

"The attorney general has no inside knowledge about Trailhead," Dunn says. "He doesn't know how it was set up and wasn't part of that process. The fact that contributors to his campaign are also contributors to Trailhead is news to him."

Last month, Waak said Suthers should step aside in favor of an independent investigation because Gov. Bill Owens, the Republican who a year ago appointed Suthers, also is a Trailhead founder.

Meanwhile, the backer or backers of Research and Democracy have remained elusive since early February, when the controversy surrounding the mailings began to unfold and when Republicans, including Owens, first raised concern over the enigmatic nature of the group.

Merrifield has told the Independent he did not request the mailing, and says he did not see it before it was sent to his constituents. He says he reported more than $11,000 in the form of mailings after he was notified that Research and Democracy made the contribution on his behalf.

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