Joe Zimlich exchanged a career in corporate accounting for several choice political appointments when he became the business and charitable point man for Colorado kingmaker Patricia "Pat" Stryker in the late 1990s.
Zimlich became a staple in Colorado politics thanks to Stryker’s $1.4 billion fortune and participation in the Colorado Democracy Alliance (CoDA). He manages the billionaire heiress’ foundation and serves as CEO of Bohemian Companies, her business empire.
The foundation helped change the face of Colorado politics after Stryker and liberal multi-millionaires Rep. Jared Polis, Tim Gill, and Rutt Bridges pooled their resources. The group, which became known as the "Gang of Four," flooded Colorado with millions of dollars of anti-Republican attacks that helped Democrats regain control of the state legislature, governor's mansion, and two U.S. Senate seats.
Stryker’s attorney and friend, former Colorado State University President Al Yates, helped CoDA members negotiate the tangled web of Colorado’s strict campaign finance and disclosure laws by funneling their money into nonprofit groups that functioned as a shadow political party.
Zimlich served as Stryker’s eyes and ears on one of CoDA’s most important allies. He was appointed to the board of ProgressNow, a Democracy Alliance partner that produces opposition research and serves as a communications shop.
"They bring a venture capital approach to politics, recruiting wealthy Democrats to serve as angel investors to ideological groups," said Isaac Smith, who blew the whistle on CoDA after working at the Bighorn Center, the now-defunct think tank run by Rutt Bridges.
The success CoDA has enjoyed through this venture capital model stands in stark contrast to Zimlich and Stryker’s record in the private sector.
Bohemian Companies, along with other investors, gave $104 millions to green energy firm Abound Solar, which failed in 2012 despite a $400 million loan guarantee that will cost taxpayers an estimated $70 million.
Zimlich served as a director and board member of Abound. He visited the White House two times in the fall of 2009, and had an Oct. 28 meeting with Vice President Joe Biden’s Chief of Staff Ron Klain. Abound enjoyed broad political support as it jockeyed for a slice of the $50 billion loan program formerly run by the Department of Energy (DOE)’s Jonathan Silver.
Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter wrote two letters of support to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and former Rep. Betsy Markey, who "helped secure" the loan for the energy company. Stryker, Zimlich, and the CoDA were instrumental to both officials’ success.
Stryker and Gill spent $3 million on the 2006 election that swept Ritter into office, according to The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado, a 2010 book about CoDA written by Adam Schrager and Rob Witwer.
That represented nearly 30 percent of all Democratic money spent on the election, but did not account for all of the money the two men sent to nonprofit groups that received the bulk of CoDA support.
ProgressNow Action, for example, was responsible for one of the left’s most effective attack campaigns against Ritter’s opponent, Bob Beauprez. It did not have to name its donors.
Zimlich benefitted from Ritter’s election victory. In January 2008, the governor tapped him to sit on Colorado State University’s Board of Governors. He now serves as the board’s chairman.
Zimlich did not return requests for comment.
CoDA played an even larger role in Markey’s 2008 victory over three-term incumbent Republican congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave.
"They went after me with millions of dollars worth of garbage; they were calling me corrupt on TV, radio, mailers, robocalls, you name it," Musgrave said. "They come at you every which way. It’s death by a thousand cuts."
Stryker contributed nearly $10,000 to Markey and financed attack ads accusing Musgrave of cronyism. She contributed $175,000 to the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund (DWAF), a 527 nonprofit group, during the 2008 cycle.
Markey, who President Barack Obama appointed to a top post at the Department of Homeland Security in 2010, did not return requests for comment.
Congress is now investigating whether cronyism played a role in Abound’s loan guarantee.
"The interrelatedness of all this is substantial; it really is a close knit group of folks working in both the private and public sector of green energy," said Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio).
Jordan, who is helping to lead the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s investigation into the loan program, said Congress is in the process of combing over the entire loan program, including Silver’s actions, because "he was the one at DOE who had a lot of influence on who got the loans and who didn’t."
Zimlich and Klain sit on the group’s board along with seven Democracy Alliance members and former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley.
The think tank, which describes itself as middle-of-the-road, enjoyed "favored organization" status with the Democracy Alliance until 2012—a distinction that enabled it to tap into the multi-billion dollar resources of Alliance members.
Neither Silver nor Third Way returned calls for comment.
Ritter also found a cushy private sector job tied to Zimlich after leaving office in 2011. Colorado State University’s Center for the New Energy Economy, a private foundation that studies green technology, hired him to be its director. His $300,000 salary makes him the CSU’s third highest paid official, trailing only the school’s football coach and president.
"The Center for the New Energy Economy, including salaries, is completely funded by private support, initially from the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation and the Fort Collins Colorado-based Bohemian Foundation," the center’s website states.
"This is not political at all," Ritter told the Denver Post after his hiring. "It is very substantive. In my perspective, it is in keeping with the Bohemian Foundation."
Ritter did not respond to requests for comment.
Stryker and Zimlich have continued to call for increased transparency and campaign finance reform despite a long history of operating in the shadows of Colorado politics and business. They signed a 2009 letter to a Democratic congressman urging passage of the Fair Election Now Act, which would provide more public funding for candidates who focus on small donations and crack down on self-financed campaigns not unlike the $6 million CoDA member Polis spent on his successful run for Congress in 2008.
"These are brilliant minds that know how to use campaign finance laws to their advantage all the while seeming very egalitarian," Musgrave said. "Campaign finance laws are the problem; they’ve done anything but get big money out of politics; it’s made it worse."