UPDATED: Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn called political campaign strategists on taxpayers’ dime
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with reporting on an additional phone call the county treasurer made to Magellan Strategies in December.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Phone records suggest Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn may have violated a state campaigning law by using her office phone during county business hours to place two phone calls to political campaign strategists that Horn has hired to work on her state treasurer campaign.
Horn called Magellan Strategies, a campaign consulting firm, in May about three weeks before she announced her candidacy.
Records show she called the campaign consultants again from her office line Dec. 1.
A county official said this week he thought the nearly hourlong phone call in May to Magellan Strategies, which occurred on a Wednesday afternoon, violates the state law that prohibits elected officials and government employees from using any public resources or time on political campaigns.
“I do think it violates” the Fair Campaign Practices Act, County Manager Tom Sullivan said of the May 17 phone call, which Steamboat Today discovered was made after reviewing months worth of county phone records obtained through an open records request. “If nothing else, it smells really bad.”
After receiving additional county phone records through a second records request on Friday, Steamboat Today confirmed Horn made a second phone call to Magellan Strategies on Dec. 1 from her office phone during business hours.
The phone records appear to directly contradict a claim the treasurer made in August that no campaign-related work had ever been done inside the county treasurer’s office during her tenure.
“Absolutely not,” Horn replied back then when asked by Steamboat Today whether she or anyone else in her office had worked on any campaign, including her state treasurer’s campaign, at the office.
That interview came after Horn was facing questions about a nearly $6 million property tax distribution error made in her office as well as allegations from a former employee that campaign work was being conducted in the treasurer’s office.
The calls to Magellan Strategies occurred on May 17 and Dec. 1, 2017.
Records show the first call lasted 52 minutes, and the second call lasted 21 minutes.
Horn announced her run for state treasurer in June.
Former treasurer’s office employee Rani Gilbert alleged in the summer that campaign work was indeed occurring inside the treasurer’s office in May.
Steamboat Today was provided pictures of a county voting precinct map on Deputy Treasurer Patrick Karschner’s desk that had numbers written on them.
Karschner denied the map was there for political campaign reasons.
He said he was using the map to view what voting precinct he lived in because he had recently moved to Routt County.
Steamboat Today sought the county phone records to review after Gilbert made the allegations about campaign activity occurring inside the office, and Horn strongly denied them.
Asked about the purpose of the first phone call to political campaign strategists on Thursday, Horn said she couldn’t recall the conversation she had with Magellan.
“I’d probably have to go back and look at my notes,” she said when asked about the call. “How do you have this record?”
Horn then requested a copy of the phone record and the open records request that produced it.
Pressed on whether she remembered the phone call in question, Horn said “I really can’t” before saying again she needed time to consult some notes before calling back.
About three hours later, Horn sent a statement via email that said “I have had thousands of conversations in 2017. I just do not remember this one — over nine months ago — before my announcement for state treasurer.”
She also ignored a request to resume a phone interview that started earlier in the day, saying questions should be sent to her via email.
Steamboat Today reached out to Horn again Friday asking for comment on the second phone call she made to Magellan in December.
Horn then replied via email: “I mentioned to you the last time that I have thousands of conversations in 2017 and did not remember that specific call topic. However, now that I think about it, calling Magellan is for being a presenter at the county treasurer and public trustee associations in June. Our conference is being held in Steamboat Springs this year and it is my responsibility to get speakers and presenters for the four day event.”
Horn did not respond to additional questions about the call, including what topic Magellan would be speaking about at the conference.
Magellan Strategies did not respond to a message left on Thursday asking to talk about the May phone call.
According to the Magellan Strategies website, the company has served as a campaign consultant for other high profile Republicans ranging from current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to former gubernatorial nominee Bob Beauprez.
According to campaign finance records, Horn paid Magellan $6,955 for campaign consulting and management work from June through September.
Government officials around Colorado are advised that in almost all cases, it is against state laws to use government time and resources on political campaigns.
Sullivan recently sent a memo to county employees reminding them of the Fair Campaign Practices Act after county officials here noticed a county official in Moffat County had used a county Facebook page to make a campaign announcement.
Sullivan said the action in the neighboring county appeared to violate the state law.
“Simply stated, political activity cannot happen while on the job or use county-owned property such as a computer or telephone,” he wrote to all county employees in the memo.
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