John Suthers: 'Pay-to-play' Campaign Contributions

John Suthers, the conservative Attorney General of Colorado, has credentials that make him look almost perfect for Mitt Romney's short list of candidates for United States Attorney General -- until you look a more closely.

A practicing Catholic, Suthers was adopted as a child, is a right-to-life advocate and has worked in government positions for all but seven of his 35-year legal career.

That career included a stint as United States Attorney for the state of Colorado, a federal post that looks great on the resume of a prospect for Attorney General.

But Denver could turn out to be a very distant move from Washington D.C. for John Suthers.
Last week's post explored his "Willie Horton moment," in which Suthers, as U.S. Attorney for Colorado, signed the early release papers of a convict who then went on to kill three women and his own uncle.

That situation may raise issues on a bi-partisan level. But his lukewarm posture toward Florida's lawsuit against Obamacare may prove even more damaging to a Presidential candidate struggling to protect his own conservative credentials.

'Soft on Obamacare'

While Suthers echoes Romney rhetoric line in public, the real question to conservatives in Colorado and elsewhere is whether Suthers really means what he says.

After telling KNUS Denver Morning Host Steven Kelly that "we want everybody to have insurance," he set off alarms that resulted in a challenge to the validity of his conservative credentials.

Conservatives were further angered when Suthers supported SB 200, essentially creating the Colorado Health Exchange, thus bringing a version of Obamacare into the state through what they perceived to be a legislative back door.

But standing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in March, smiling for the cameras as the Justices prepared to hear oral arguments in Florida's attempt to defeat the Affordable Health Care Act, Suthers offered a quote that could have come straight from Romney's speechwriters:

"There are lots of national problems that you can envision out there," Suthers said. "If the government can require you to buy products or services to solve every national problem, they will control your economic decision making."

Nonetheless, Clark vowed to rally his supporters to mount a vigorous campaign to oppose Suthers if he ever sought higher office, a threat Romney's senior advisers would find hard to ignore.

'Pay-to-play' campaign contributions?

Yet another area of exposure for Romney would arise through Suthers' acceptance of $11,775 in campaign contributions from a group of high-interest lenders in his successful 2010 campaign for re-election as Colorado attorney general. Critics said Suthers took that money at the same time he was re-drafting state regulations on the short-term loan businesses.

The timing of the hefty contribution from "looks like 'pay-to-play,'" said Luis Toro, executive director of Colorado Ethics Watch, "And that's something the attorney general should avoid." Toro called on Suthers to return the contributions.

Suthers did not. Instead, Suthers assigned a subordinate, Laura Udis, to draft the legislation in an apparent attempt to dampen the criticism.

Adding another layer to the appearance Toro questioned is the fact that Suthers, even as he was accepting the contribution from the lenders, was spending millions of Colorado taxpayer dollars in a failed attempt to shut down others.

'Hitching his cart' to Romney's wagon

Colorado political insiders say as Colorado Attorney General, Suthers has been more successful in pressing his own case to become the United States Attorney General if Mitt Romney is elected president in November.

Suthers endorsed Romney in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination four years ago and did so again in this primary.

A career public servant whose final term as state attorney general ends in 2015, Suthers has hosted at least one major fundraiser for Romney and is a leader among Romney's supporters within the Colorado Republican elite. Romney, in turn, endorsed Suthers in his 2010 victory over Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett.

State Rep. Bob Gardner, chair of the Colorado General Assembly Judiciary Committee and a friend of Suthers, said that many Colorado Republicans believe that Suthers is a top contender for a cabinet appointment if Romney wins, although he personally hasn't discussed the subject with Suthers "out of respect."

Suthers' resume includes an undergraduate degree from Notre Dame in 1974 and a law degree from the University of Colorado in 1977. He served as District Attorney in Colorado Springs, headed the Colorado Department of Corrections, was U.S. Attorney for Colorado, and for the past seven years has been Colorado Attorney General.

His personal life is equally tailored to please the Romney team: He's been married to his wife Janet for 35 years and has two adult children working in responsible positions. His resume, family life and long alliance with Romney position him well.

But behind-the-scenes, Republicans responsible for vetting cabinet appointments would have to consider the Kimball case, the campaign contribution issue and the very strong opposition to Suthers from Indian tribes.

'Never a lead investigator'

A former prosecutor who worked for Suthers and journalists who cover his office daily agree with Garnett that Suthers relies greatly on his senior staffers and also note that he has never been a lead litigator in any of the national cases he has joined.

"He has an almost desperate need to be liked," Garnett said. "He attends almost every gathering of state attorneys general, and the guys he wants to be liked by are extremely conservative." On the campaign trail in 2010, Garnett accused Suthers of being "a Tea Party candidate."

So it looks like Suthers has enough blemishes on an otherwise smooth surface to raise real questions among the team assigned by Romney to assemble a short list of candidates. Early release of a man who went on a murder spree, refusal to return questionable campaign contributions and a soft stance on Obamacare might just mean that Suthers' next political seat might be in the bleachers.