The supporters of ST3, a massive $54 billion tax proposal for light rail on the ballot this November, appear to be violating campaign finance rules. There is great political and financial pressure to ensure passage of one of the biggest tax increases in Washington State history this November.
A formal complaint was filed with Washington State’s Public Disclosure Commission on August 20, 2016 by Tacoma resident and citizen activist Conner Edwards against Sound Transit for violating campaign finance and public disclosure rules. The status of this complaint can be tracked and read on the Public Disclosure Commission website here, Case #7823. The text of the complaint is as follows (and linked here):
To Whom it May Concern —
I am filing a formal complaint alleging that the public agency Sound Transit violated RCW 42.17A.555 by illegally releasing an exempt list of contact information to the campaign committee “Mass Transit Now” in violation of the Public Records Act.
The improper release of this list is evidence that the government agency Sound Transit is improperly coordinating with “Mass Transit Now” committee to influence the outcome of the ST3 ballot measure.
The contact list containing 227,000 names was used to send out a mass e-mail electioneering communication from “Mass Transit Now” promoting a “yes” vote on ST3, which will be on the 2016 General election ballot.
Public agencies routinely respond to public record requests. Designated officers keep redaction logs, containing the PRA exemptions that are most applicable to the documents the agency possesses. Experienced attorneys advise staff on what information can be released and what is exempt. It is simply not conceivable that Sound Transit was not aware of the exemption in RCW 42.56.330. It is far more likely that they intentionally did not apply the exemption so as to benefit the “Mass Transit Now” campaign.
If one person among the 227,000 had not registered for the ORCA program with a separate e-mail address, it is likely that Sound Transit’s violation of the law would not have been discovered. It is likely that the collaboration between Sound Transit and “Mass Transit Now” goes deeper than the violation I am currently writing about.
If passed, ST3 will dramatically increase Sound Transit’s taxes in Snohomish, King, and Pierce Counties. Both the “Yes” and the “No” campaign have a right to be heard, but as a government agency, Sound Transit must stop influencing the outcome of the election with public resources.
Lori Anderson, spokeswoman for the PDC, summed up the issue well: “If there’s protected records that they wouldn’t give to you or I, then they shouldn’t be giving those to the campaign… … that’s a restriction on using public facilities to support a political campaign’s ballot initiative.”
While I rely heavily on the facts written in Mr. Kamb’s 8/19 article (attached), I have also made a public record request to Sound Transit for documents related to the violation I have just described. When I receive more information related to the violation, I will share it with the appropriate PDC compliance officer.
In addition to filing this complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission, I will also be notifying the Attorney General’s Office and King County Prosecutor’s Office pursuant to RCW 42.17A.765 (4).
I reserve the right to enforce RCW 42.17A via citizen’s action in the name of the state if the Attorney General and Prosecuting Attorney fail to act within the time period prescribed by law.
As indicated in the complaint, formal notice was also sent to the Washington State Attorney General’s office and the King County Prosecutor’s office. Not surprisingly, the King County Prosecutor’s office has deferred to the state on this one (as indicated in this letter) sent to Mr. Edwards.
This complaint is based, in part, on the Seattle Times article from August 19, which exposed the fact that Sound Transit colluded with the Mass Transit Now Political Action Committee, which is largely funded by special interest corporations lobbying to profit from the tax burden Sound Transit plans to impose on local residents in King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties. This massive $54 billion tax proposal is called ST3 and it will be on the November ballot in all three counties in the targeted precincts (not all voters in these counties can vote on this tax, because the less supportive precincts were gerrymandered out of the voting district area).
Mr. Edwards formal notice to the State Attorney General’s office triggers a 45 day window where the Attorney General can choose to prosecute Sound Transit for the violation, or they can take a pass. After 45 days, if the State AG chooses to not pursue, then local citizens can take direct legal action against Sound Transit themselves. However, this will be a difficult case for local citizens to prosecute because Sound Transit has, over recent years, hired or “consulted” with the top 57 law firms in the Seattle area. This means those firms are conflicted, and couldn’t be used by any plaintiffs wishing to sue Sound Transit.
If the Attorney General chooses to pursue Sound Transit (see the confirmation letter from AG to Mr. Edwards here), most observers believe that a softball approach will be taken due to the political clout and financial support Sound Transit receives from powerful political insiders in Washington State.
Sound Transit has, in the past, been found in violation of many public disclosure rules, illegal use of paid lobbyists, and other questionable actions. Sound Transit is also willing to mislead the public and elected officials about their past failures to complete projects on time or on budget (even while they throw expensive parties for themselves). This recent violation should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Sound Transit. Although small fines have been imposed against the agency in the past, these fines have been treated as the cost of doing business for this agency.
Conner Edwards said earlier today:
Sound Transit has repeatedly violated state law prohibiting public agencies from engaging in campaign activities with taxpayer money. This needs to end.
Taxpayer should not be forced to assist the pro-ST3 campaign in their goal to take even more money from working families in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties.
Sound Transit need to be held accountable, and I’m willing to go to court if necessary to enforce state law.
Only transparency demanded by citizens and their elected officials can keep the Sound Transit juggernaut on the legal track and not off the rails violating the law and abusing the power they have over citizens. Unfortunately, for the small number of riders who use Sound Transit, their personal information it appears will be distributed to any politically connected corporation or organization who can use this information in whatever means necessary to promote their special interests. The rest of us can only observe and monitor the agencies that enforce the law. We must ensure that there is not one set of rules for us and another for Sound Transit.
If you want to contact the Public Disclosure Commission Directly to support this complaint, you can call or email them:
If you want to contact Sound Transit and tell them what you think about their tax proposal, giving out personal information on the people who use their trains and buses, or on anything else, you can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or their board of directors here.
Our Constitution begins with the phrase “we the people.” It was the founder’s intent that government be created by the people, to serve the people. It wasn’t their intention for the people to serve the government. It was always intended that government which failed to serve the people should be “altered or abolished.” Until we return to the founder’s intent, we remain We the Governed…
Documents Referenced in this Article
Serious reasons to be concerned about ST3: