If you dare to speak truth to power, there will always be repercussions. The powerful always strike back. We are witnessing this in Washington State as the cascading exposure of widespread violations of the state’s campaign finance laws become widely known. The Washington State Democratic Party, led by Tina Podlodowski, is doing their best to strike back. On Friday, Podlodowski issued a press release praising the fact that the Washington State Democratic Party has filed 40 campaign finance complaints (an action she defined as “petty” a few months ago) against Republicans as retaliation for the recent exposure of the Democratic Party’s violations of these same laws. This is a bit ironic since none of these folk had anything to do with exposing the violators this author identified in the first place, but logic is nowhere to be found in this emotional lashing out.
The chaos of this exposure is shining a light in places where party insiders don’t want anyone looking. This attempt to strike back at this author and random Republican politicians is one part of lashing out. However, this distraction still won’t hide the truth. Widespread violations of the state’s campaign finance laws are endemic, extensive, and far more significant than any political insider wanted to admit even a few months ago.
45 years of Enforcing Campaign Finance Laws
Washington State’s campaign finance laws were originally created by a citizens initiative in 1972. This was the same initiative that created a variety of sunshine laws we enjoy to this day including the Public Records Act, Public Disclosure Commission, and the Open Public Meetings Act. The legislature codified these laws over the years and while court cases and legislative changes have produced changes, the underlying structure is basically the same.
Violations of the campaign finance laws have occurred since the time the law appeared on the books, but it was always a sedate and political insider process. Each side of the political debate (election or initiative) would file complaints against the other side. Sometimes these complaints had merit and a penalty would be levied, usually by the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), sometimes there was no merit and the complaint would be dismissed. Tag, you’re it. Mostly, this was a political insiders game. Sometimes the violations were significant, sometimes they were minor. Sometimes they didn’t exist. Both political parties tended to use the campaign finance law like a game of “gotcha” to create newspaper headlines about their opponents during tough political campaigns. Few non-political folk paid much attention.
One side disengages, and the Attorney General decides to get serious
I’ve argued before that our state’s campaign finance laws rested, in part, on the assumption that both sides of the political competition would stay in the fight. The PDC and to a lesser extent, the AG’s office is structured around a complaint-driven process. Nobody envisioned that one side would stop paying attention.
Yet, the Republicans generally stopped filing complaints decades ago. There were two cultural factors that caused this. The first was the general Republican consensus and assumption that the system was “rigged” and not “fair,” so the Republicans (with rare exceptions) started playing defense rather than offense. The second was the expectation that Republican complaints against Democrats would not be taken seriously, so why bother filing them in the first place? The Republicans became more focused on compliance and playing defense from complaints filed against them. The Democrats, on the other hand, continued to file complaints and were far more effective doing so.
For example, when Susan Hutchison ran against Dow Constantine in 2009, during the race for King County Executive, a PDC complaint was filed against Hutchison, generating a variety of news articles like this one in the Seattle Times. Another example was the 2008 Rossi vs. Governor Gregoire campaign where campaign finance complaints forced Republican Dino Rossi to testify on what was ultimately an insignificant PDC complaint. There are many other recent examples, big and small, which highlight how the campaign finance enforcement process had become politically one-sided.
These examples, by themselves, do not necessarily mean the PDC and the AG’s office was corrupted or would only file lawsuits against Republicans. However, even in the cases where Democrats or Democrat-leaning organizations were charged, the origins of the complaints were usually caused by intramural Democrat fights like the Moxie Media case from 2011. While partisan bias may have been a factor, part of the problem for Republicans appears self-inflicted because they stopped paying attention to their political opponents and they stopped (with very few exceptions) filing complaints against Democrats.
Enter Ferguson, the Campaign Finance Law enforcer
Under Attorney General Bob Ferguson‘s leadership, the political element of this process and the enforcement of this law began to change. Ferguson ran for re-election as Washington State’s Attorney General, in part, on a promise to more aggressively enforce Washington State’s campaign finance laws. Ferguson filed high profile lawsuits against Tim Eyman (the initiative guy), based on a 5 year old complaint from 2012 (See the 9 AG press releases linked below). Ferguson also filed and won the largest campaign finance case in Washington State history against the Grocery Manufacturers Association and won an $18 million dollar judgement last year. Ferguson also followed the lead of the Washington State Democratic Party and filed a lawsuit against Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman last year based on a State Democratic Party complaint filed against Wyman (motivated by the very same Tina Podlodowski who now complains about these complaints). This lawsuit was timed perfectly to impact the 2016 election cycle, although it failed to help Podlodowski win the election.
The Ferguson lawsuit against Kim Wyman was notable to political insiders because it was a high-profile lawsuit with multiple press releases (linked here, here, and here) and extensive public exposure of a case with a violation far less significant than the historic campaign finance cases the office had typically handled. Political insiders began to call this new activism by the AG’s office, the “Wyman Standard.”
Ferguson, Podlodowski, and the Democratic Party start the avalanche
I never expected to become involved attempting to reform Washington State’s campaign finance laws. Until late last year, I was only tangentially aware of the structural problems with our state’s campaign finance laws. I had discussed some reform ideas with political insiders in the past, but common sense reform appeared hopeless. However, I was concerned about helping Thurston County throw off the yoke of an abusive and hostile Commission, which had been run by the Democratic Party for decades.
I was actively involved in the 2016 campaign, and for my efforts, like many people who dare to question authority and get involved, I had my own experience with the Washington State Democratic Party. A death threat from a local Democrat PCO which resulted in a permanent restraining order began the saga. A PDC complaint was filed against me and my mini local PACs by the Washington State Democratic Party (dismissed without merit), and a silly lawsuit by the Washington State Democratic Party was filed against me (easily settled). This, along with Senator Sam Hunt’s accurate statement that I didn’t know anything about our state’s campaign finance laws, inspired me to educate myself on this subject. With the encouragement and inspirations from my friends in the Democratic Party, I started filing my own complaints modelled on the style the Washington State Democratic Party taught me.
Chaos unfolds, hypocrisy exposed, and motives revealed
At the time this article was written, I have only filed about 266 PDC complaints since late last year. A majority of these were also filed with the Attorney General’s office. About 40 of these complaints were used by the AG’s office to file 18 lawsuits, which I have detailed in a previous article. Then, the AG’s office stopped filing lawsuits against Democrats several months ago, when Ferguson’s protege and lead litigator quit the office and declared it “unfair” to sue Democrats. He promptly started filing complaints against this author and random Republicans. Apparently, just like Podlodowski, Mr. Smith felt filing complaints against Republicans would distract from the obvious failures of the Democrats to follow the law.
Fair enough. The empire always strikes back when they are exposed, and Mr. Smith’s public departure from employment at the AG’s office and his explanation for that departure exposed serious concerns about bias and hypocrisy within the AG’s office. It appears the campaign finance unit was staffed with hyper partisan public employees who didn’t actually believe they should enforce the law (which, in theory, is non-partisan) against Democrats. Apparently, campaign finance laws were only intended to be enforced against Republicans. It might also be true that a quota system might exist. After 18 lawsuits against Democrats, the AG’s office might have decided to back off the Ferguson’s campaign promises. Regardless of the true motivation, when combined with Podlodowski’s recent press release, clearly the campaign finance enforcement program has changed.
Nobody should assume that politics is a game of beanbag. It is a full contact sport, even if one side abandons the field. It now appears that nearly every Democrat County Party political committee, legislative district committee, state Legislator, state Senator, and many others have violated the state’s campaign finance laws at least equivalent or greater than the “Wyman Standard” established by Tina Podlodowski and AG Ferguson last year. Republicans have probably committed some violations as well, and those who have done so will be exposed by Mr. Smith as revenge for being forced to sue Democrats.
However, while the Democratic Party empire is striking back and angry about being exposed, they finally, at long last, have now come around to this author’s suggestions for reform. The Democratic Party, for the first time in modern history, is now willing to reform the state’s campaign finance laws. I consider this real progress, and I’m happy to see the Washington State Democrats finally agree with me.
The State Democrats are struggling with internal battles over sexual harassment (and rape accusations) at their meetings, and with a variety of former legislators (see articles here and here). Some Democrats believe Podlodowski is merely staging these complaints as a way to distract from her failure to create true “safe spaces” at party events and her effort to distract from other internal failures (former Democratic State Chair Dwight Pelz predicted she would fail). The Bernie rebellion is a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party, which the party is attempting to suppress or co-opt. Podlodowski (a former super-delegate for Hillary Clinton) should consider whether her political empire is going to succeed in putting down every rebellion that pops up. Events like last Friday’s press release (“look over there at the evil Republicans, don’t look at us”) can only distract the gullible for so long.
The truth is eventually going to get out, no matter how much Tina Podlodowski’s empire tries to bury it or distract the party faithful. A Friday press release before the Thanksgiving weekend isn’t going to stop the truth from coming out eventually…
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…
Additional Background articles:
AG Press Releases about lawsuits filed as a result of complaints filed by this author
August 18, 2017 – AGO settles Campaign Finance Complaint against Representative Strom Peterson for a settlement of $11,950. Peterson pays $7, 595 with the rest deferred.Note- this was sent out as a tweet on August 21, 2017 in lieu of a press release