Jim CastroLang, part time pastor and paid executive director of the Spokane Democrats, resigned a few weeks ago. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Unfortunately, recent articles written by this author and multiple investigative articles published recently by Daniel Walters of the Pacific Northwest Inlander exposed a sordid tale of chaos, confusion, and significant problems inside the Spokane County Democratic Party. As bad as this situation appears, it will only get worse over the next few months as Spokane County, Washington State becomes ground zero for exposing campaign finance violations.
Taking cash from kids – scholarship money used for adults
As reported in the Inlander (linked here) from April 14th, a scholarship fund had been established by the Spokane Democrats over a decade ago using money donated to the party by longtime Spokane County Democrat icon Betty Drumheller after her death in 2000. The original amount was $83,000. Much of it was frittered away, but beginning in 2009, the majority of the funds left from this donation were set aside as a scholarship fund for kids in the community. It was not intended to pay for parties or to cover the cost of paying Jim CastroLang’s salary as the new executive director.
Unfortunately, despite the clear 2009 board meeting minutes, and the best of intentions by historic boards and Party activists, the recently resigned executive director Jim CastroLang did exactly this. The recent complaint filed with the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) by this author (linked here) referenced the missing $7000 from the Drumheller account as one of many campaign finance violations committed by CastroLang. There are internal disputes over how and when this money was spent. There are also many questions over what happened to the rest of the money. It appears this fund was never reported to the PDC, which was also illegal. However, regardless of how the money vanished, one fact is clear: the kids won’t be getting their scholarships.
CastroLang promised to make the party go pro, but instead went amature fiasco
The sales pitch from CastroLang to justify the expense of hiring him for the Spokane County Democrats primarily revolved around making the party more professional and effective at fundraising. He claimed he would “turn Spokane blue.” Local political parties are typically run by volunteers and rarely function like slick operations. Improving their professional image might improve fundraising. This claim was made by both CastroLang and earlier this year by the newly elected chair Andrew Biviano. However, political parties, PACs, activists, and the whirlwind of activities that surround them are intended to help elect candidates. They don’t need to be pro, but simple competency is nice.
Reality is a harsh instructor, and despite the happy talk, professionalism for the Spokane County Democrats took a sharp turn to amateur hour once CastroLang took charge and collected a regular paycheck. This is far more than just the wholesale systemic collapse of any effort to comply with the PDC rules. Belatedly, when an effort was made in late 2016 to correct the record, significant expenditures (CastroLang’s salary) and donations (WEA, Spokane Tribe, Spokane Firefighters) were suspiciously left off the reports. As detailed in the complaint (linked here), and discussed in this article, the party descended into fiscal fiasco buried by a facade of good intentions.
Incompetence was their only defense against charges of corruption
After receiving the complaint, the priority of newly elected chair Biviano was to assure party members, donors, and the public that the Spokane County Democrats were not crooks. Specifically, it was very important that CastroLang be exonerated as a good guy. The challenge with this damage control was crafting a believable explanation for the breathtaking scope of violations. This was a real challenge. When threatened by accusations of corruption, the Spokane County Democrats vigorously claimed they were not crooks, just spectacularly incompetent.
The incompetence was breathtaking and impressive. They claimed incompetence at filing paperwork. They were dumbfounded by the software program (used effectively by many other Democratic Committees). Party leadership was blissfully unaware that no PDC documents were being filed for eight months. When the documents were finally filed egregiously late, nobody noticed that major donations and expenditures were missing. Strangely, nobody noticed that the financial documents presented to the Board was very different than the financials presented to the PDC. Despite resignation of the unpaid treasurer in July, nobody noticed that CastroLang continued to file hundreds of documents (including the falsified ones) under the name of the resigned treasurer.
The message to the Democrat Party faithful is,” We are not crooks, but just a bunch of clowns.” Several challenges are created by this defense strategy, even if people believe it. First, donors, activists, and supporters who are the lifeblood of any political party are unlikely to engage if you convince them you are really this incompetent. Secondly, the Attorney General is investigating these problems, and claims of incompetence won’t prevent the inevitable litigation and penalties. Many other committees and candidates have been charged for far less significant violations just in the past few months. Here are a few examples directly from recent Attorney General press releases – here, here, here, here, and here. These are not happy times for those who break these laws.
New Chair Biviano – living in denial and trying to plug the leaks
Andrew Biviano has a tough job. Nobody should doubt this. However, the job is made more difficult when denying reality. Unfortunately, denial is in the air around the Spokane County Democrats. The first mistake was to deny any real problems, but that silly phase on the road to recovery has passed.
The more urgent problem is plugging the leaks and mitigating the damage. Based on emails sent by Biviano to his Executive Board, he is trying to convince them to “…consider what you write and whether you’d like to see it on Morgan’s blog…” and his internal emails reference this author and Daniel Walther from the Inlander – knowing that we will end up reading Andrew’s correspondence regardless. This is depressing for anyone in
Andrew’s position, but more significantly, a paranoid mole hunt won’t resolve important problems. If there are any moles inside the party, they are less likely to leak if there are fewer problems and less corruption. The priority should be on fixing the problems not squashing internal dissent. This only breeds paranoia.
Losing money on fundraisers and squandering cash on epic parties
Lost in the drama of the AG investigation, is the significant problem the Spokane County Democrats have created in regards to fundraising. The recent Tom Foley Dinner is the
primary fundraising event of the year for the Spokane Democrats. However, based on recent financial filings, they lost money ($1200 in the hole to be exact – assuming their reporting is exact at all). This, despite a sold out event, high profile speakers, and an $11,000 in-kind donation for a special tribute video to Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Yes, the same guy currently investigating the Spokane County Democrats for massive campaign finance violations. This was awkward because Attorney General Bob Ferguson was helping the Spokane County Democrats raise money while they were being investigated by his office for attempting to hide money from the public.
This appears to be a trend in Spokane. Not the AG investigation (at least not yet). The tendency to organize massive expenditures on fundraisers and parties that don’t help the party achieve its goals of electing Democrats appears to be a common theme. This fact was addressed in the recent Inlander article with the following quote from a local Democrat activist:
He’s (Lambert) still irritated that at that same meeting, the Democrats’ vice-chair was celebrating a 2008 election-night bash that put the party in the red.
“Fantastic election night event,” the minutes read. “Put us in the hole financially, but it was amazing.”
Lambert wants the party to spend less on election-night celebrations and more on achieving election-night wins worth celebrating.
Why would anyone (other than unions and tribes) donate money to an organization that is so wasteful with the money they receive? Why would any group trust their money to this organization when the leadership has been willing to pilfer funds from the Drumheller scholarship fund for kids and use it on epic parties and secret paychecks to Castrolang? It will take a serious sales job and years of amnesia to win back this lost trust.
The Attorney General coming around and taking names
However, looming over the structural problems, the historic incompetence, and the current leadership chaos is the Attorney General investigation. It doesn’t look good for the Spokane County Democrats. This started as a complaint filed with the Public Disclosure Commission, however it is entirely in the hands of the Attorney General’s office, which is handling the investigation exclusively at this point. As the AG pours through two and half years of bank statements, emails, cancelled checks, and phone interviews, the truth will be harder to hide.
Biviano is attempting to placate the Attorney General’s office in an understandable effort to reduce the seriousness of the inevitable penalties and fines. For example, the fawning $11,000 tribute video to Bob Ferguson played for Bob Ferguson at the Tom Foley Dinner (you can watch the video here). Biviano changed his Facebook profile to include Ferguson in Biviano’s profile photo, which was weird and a little creepy. Most observers believe Ferguson is planning to run for Governor in a few years. Ferguson is unlikely to trash his future political plans because a screwed up county political party tried to butter him up.
A dawning sense of dread permeates the Spokane County Democratic Party. Leadership voted to assign $6000 for the legal defense (including $1000 for the recently “resigned” CastroLang). Someone failed to get their insurance for the directors and officers. Finally, the acceptance that legal action is coming has changed the defense strategy from denying the violations and claims of incompetence to a heroic effort to beat the “wilful and malicious” element of the violations which brings additional penalties. If they can avoid this label, it will be a serious victory.
A warning for all: Don’t be like the Spokane Democrats
The ripple effect of this mess is only beginning. It will get worse. Even as this disaster unfolds into exposure of incompetence and corruption, there are still lessons to be learned from this political party’s nightmare. Some may watch the unfolding revelations with awe, others in secret glee, but all should realize this type of behavior is probably not unique to the Spokane County Democrats.
First, as the author of this complaint, I frequently wondered why the Republicans didn’t file this type of complaint. Theoretically, the Democrats and Republicans are political rivals in the endless partisan game of politics. To some extent the current PDC system is complaint driven and exists partly with the expectation that political rivals will hold each other accountable. While true in theory, it only matters if both sides are paying attention. This should serve as a wake up call not just to the Democrats, but also the Republicans to stay aware of their surroundings. It isn’t enough to keep your own house in order. It is probably wise to make sure the other guy is doing the right thing as well.
Secondly, the investigation initiated by the complaint exposed the nightmare scenario that is always possible when a largely volunteer organization abandons the basic checks and balances. The Spokane Democrats had adequate bylaws and policies that should, in theory, prevent this type of disaster from unfolding. However, those bylaws and policies are only as good as the people who are on the board and running the show. If they abandon their responsibilities, accept trust without verification, and hope for the best, this type of fiasco is ultimately inevitable. The names and the details might change, but human nature does not. If the Spokane County Democrats forget this event or pretend it is somebody else’s fault, then it will certainly happen to them again.
Finally, we may never really understand why Jim CastroLang did this to the party he claimed to love and lead. In the middle of this unfolding drama, before it became common knowledge, Jim preached a sermon titled “The Devil Made me Do it” (linked here). To date, nobody has publicly blamed the devil, but there is something universal and timeless about the fallen nature of man. Eternal vigilance combined with a variety of checks and balances are the only way to prevent this type of event from becoming even more common. If men were angels, we wouldn’t need rules, laws, government, or political parties. It is precisely because men are not angels that we believe in the rule of law and the recognition that government should be as limited in scope, intrusiveness, and size as possible. If a local political party can be this screwed up so easily – imagine how bad things must be in our larger institutions where the stakes are much higher.
The devil indeed can make a lot of people do it, but the real lesson most political observers are repeating right now is a bit more mundane – Don’t be like the Spokane County Democrats…
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…
Recent articles about Spokane County Democrat Complaints
Jim CastroLang sermon – “The Devil Made me do it” Feb 14, 2016
Recent AG lawsuits and other pending complaints:
December 19, 2016 -AG lawsuit against Theresa Purcell (Thurston Superior Court #16-2-04959-34)