Yesterday, the Seattle Times published an article about my efforts to expose campaign finance violations in Washington State. I appreciate when the media covers stories like this. Campaign finance reform is often considered boring, wonkish, and not usually worthy of media attention. In the limited print space provided to Joseph O’Sullivan, The Seattle Times journalist, much about this story was omitted. Here is the rest of the story.
Making a real impact
Filing a complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) by itself is a fairly simple and straightforward process. However, just like measuring activity and representing this as an “achievement,” the number of complaints someone files with the PDC is a meaningless statistic without more data. How effective have these complaints been in exposing campaign finance violations and improving compliance with Washington State’s campaign finance laws? Let’s look at the facts:
- As of today this author has filed 108 complaints with the PDC. Of these, 15 were PDC only complaints, which leaves us with 92 AG Citizen Action Notices filed – the primary focus of the recent Seattle Times article
- Only 48 AG Complaints filed by this author have been completely investigated and 44 are still in process (usually means the AG and/or the PDC is still investigating them or preparing a response).
- Of the 48 complaints, 31 became 13 active lawsuits (some lawsuits incorporate multiple complaints), mostly filed by the AG’s office. Three lawsuits have already settled for fines and fees. One additional complaint resulted in a fine by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Board against City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant (see list of lawsuits below for specifics and case numbers).
- Of the remaining 16 processed complaints, 5 are abandoned by both this author and the AG as we have agreed that uncovered facts failed to justify prosecution of the cases or there was some other legal problem with the complaint. The remaining 11 represent 8 candidates or committees where the AG chose not to prosecute, despite finding violations during the investigation. This is called prosecutorial discretion. For a visual representation of the effectiveness of these complaints see the following chart.
Too much credit is given to this author by both the Seattle Times reporter and the angry partisan activists who comment on this issue. Most of the credit for these results belong to others. An initiative by the voters of Washington State created the PDC and the original foundation for most of Washington State’s campaign finance laws in 1972. The legislature over the years has modified these laws. The PDC bureaucracy and Commission has drafted and created the rules. The Washington State Attorney General’s office filed most of the lawsuits. All this author did was research the violations and report them to the proper authorities. This action is very similar to a 911 call to report a crime.
The 67% success rate demonstrated so far will improve with experience and efficiency, unless there is a radical change in policy at the PDC or the AG’s office.
Additionally, this author uncovered and exposed substantial and systemic failures to comply with campaign finance laws on multiple occasions. Much has been written about the obvious significant violations by the Spokane County Democratic Central Committee and the King County Democrats. However, completely unreported (except by PDC staff at the recent May 25th Commission meeting) was the fact there was only a 25% compliance rate with RCW 42.17A.560 by cities and other municipalities. A total of 19 complaints (out of 246 potential violators) were filed by this author to help expose this problem and force a substantial improvement in compliance right now.
Substantial improvements in reporting, transparency and compliance is a good, bipartisan result for our state.
How did this all begin? Campaign promises, death threats, cult leader, lawsuits and Senator Sam Hunt
Attorney General Bob Ferguson has led the way by emphasizing campaign finance compliance as a priority for the AG’s office both in his campaign promises last year, and also with his creation of a special unit which specializes in campaign finance prosecutions. Additionally, Ferguson established the criteria by which he prioritized serious campaign finance violations when he prosecuted Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman in 2016. Wyman’s violations were uncovered by Washington State Democratic Party officials who filed the original complaint against her. This is now called the “Wyman Standard” when referring to AG complaint lawsuit threshold.
Secondly, while I was familiar with some PDC rules and campaign finance laws, I am no expert. I became engaged in local elections last year in Thurston County where I have long been an outspoken critic of the Thurston County Commissioners and their policies. Last year’s anemic effort at campaign activism with some local robocalls resulted in a death threat from a Democrat PCO (who called from his home phone and left a message), a restraining order against that PCO, a PDC complaint filed by the Washington State Democratic Party, a lawsuit by the Washington State Democratic Party, the local Democratic Party finally renouncing violence as a political tactic, and another lawsuit funded by a local cult leader named JZ Knight who largely funds the Thurston County Democratic Party (over $217,000 in the last few years of direct contributions and support for Democrat candidates) and claims to channel a 35,000 year old homicidal Lemurian warrior spirit named “Ramtha.” I helped expose JZ Knight’s racist speeches in 2012 which resulted in the Washington State Democratic Party divesting themselves of the recent large donations she had provided that year. JZ Knight/Ramtha has been on a local rampage ever since – by filing or funding multiple lawsuits and shovelling large piles of cash into the local Democratic Party.
I responded with PDC complaints of my own including one against Democratic Senate candidate Sam Hunt, who wrote a letter to the PDC claiming that I was ignorant about campaign finance laws. He was right, and his actions encouraged me to educate myself and become more involved in this process. Thanks to Senator Sam Hunt’s encouragement and inspiration from the Washington State Democratic Party, the journey to explore and better understand the problems with our state’s campaign finance laws began. As noted below, Senator Sam Hunt, the Thurston County Democrats, and both candidates for the Thurston County Commission were charged by Attorney General Ferguson with a variety of campaign finance violations.
Originally, I believed that it was possible to demonstrate that nearly every candidate is in violation of the campaign finance laws in one way or another. However, while this appears to be true, I have also discovered massive failures to comply with the disclosure laws (Spokane County Democrats, King County Democrats, etc). I have now shifted the focus towards collecting relevant data to support sound bipartisan policy fixes to the existing campaign finance laws that would still support the transparency goals of the original initiative, but become less of a barrier to political participation than the current system. For this, just like the Democrats, I blame the Republicans.
Why the Republicans are to blame and the perception of political bias in the agencies
A fundamental assumption of campaign finance law enforcement in our state is the belief that every political contest has at least two sides in opposition. This theory then assumes that each competing faction will use the PDC open records to hold the other side accountable. When one faction sees a failure to comply with the rules, they file a complaint on the other. The PDC (or AG) becomes less about enforcement than behaving like a referee in these political disputes. The entire campaign finance edifice is also based on the political impartiality of the PDC and the AG.
Here is where I believe this system has broken down. After interviewing many Republican candidates, treasurers, and local activists around the state, there is a common view from their perspective that both the PDC and the AG are entirely partisan and biased against Republican candidates and committees. This perception is based on two fundamental categories of evidence. First, the bureaucracy in this state has been controlled by the Democratic Party since 1985. All directors have been appointed by Democratic governors. Secondly, nearly every Republican organization in the state has been on the receiving end of PDC complaints filed against them or other Republican groups they know and they generally believe they were treated unfairly and in a biased manner by the PDC. They feel that the Democrats never get the same treatment.
This bias perception has never been expressed to me in a similar manner by Democrats. I have never had a Democrat activist or candidate tell me that the PDC was biased against Democrats. This perception has created the current scenario where both parties and their candidates have suffered.
The Republicans, with some notable exceptions, for many years have rarely filed PDC complaints against their Democratic rivals. In fact, a rough survey of complaints for the past 10-15 years (the data is still being compiled) shows that a disproportionate level of complaints were filed by Democrats and a declining number of complaints filed by Republicans. The Republicans have trended towards focusing on self-compliance (not always achieving this) and they have ignored their political competitors because they believe that filing a complaint is a worthless and pointless exercise. The problem with this trend, for the Democrats, is the fact that when the Democratic Committees or candidates fail to comply with the law, nobody is paying attention and there are no consequences. Minor violations go unnoticed, so eventually these metastasize into major and eventually catastrophic violations like the Spokane and King County Democrats.
Not every Democratic Committee has egregiously violated the campaign finance laws of Washington State. Most are in violation of some kind, but there is a spectrum of violation. Interestingly, in the pockets of the state where Republicans still file the occasional PDC complaint, the Democrats tend to have their books in order (Whatcom County Democrats, for example). In places where the Republicans have rarely, if ever, filed complaints, the Democrats are going to court – Spokane, King, Thurston, etc. So, it is certainly fair that the Republicans share the blame for the wholesale failure of many Democratic Committees and candidates to follow the campaign finance laws. Hopefully this trend of non-compliance will change due in no small part to this author’s efforts.
Is the PDC politically biased? Maybe, but I don’t believe this is as clear cut as many Republican activists think. Yes, it is true that the directors of the PDC and the members of the board have all been appointed by Democratic governors for decades now. It is also true that the partisan affiliation of almost every employee who works at the PDC and the AG (when it can be found) is with the Democratic Party. However, this by itself does not ensure a partisan outcome of results. Anecdotal examples of individual biased results are not enough to prove partisan bias for the agency as a
whole. For example, it is true that Democrats have filed the overwhelming volume of complaints until recently. The State Democratic Party has a rotation of paid staffers who do this, and they probably file more effective complaints. I have looked at their historic actions to model my current efforts. Logically, since the Republicans have no equivalent institutional skillset, then the Republicans would be at a strong disadvantage here – and it may not be entirely due to political bias. It could be partly due to a lack of complaint competency.
Regardless, I am hoping that enough data and comparatively valid examples can be produced over the next year or so to produce a report which can clarify the bias (if any) by either the AG or the PDC. In the meantime, data is still being collected, and the data should inform everyone about which reforms are most logical and impactful.
Frank Chopp shouldn’t abdicate his legislative responsibility. Any fixes must be bipartisan
Ultimately, I believe campaign finance reform is long overdue in this state, but the solutions must be bipartisan in nature and result. More importantly, these reforms must be initiated by the legislature so that they are codified in the law. They should be designed to help the newcomer to the political process be transparent just as much as the incumbent, and they shouldn’t be so complex that only an insider can comply.
In the recent Seattle Times article, Speaker Frank Chopp was quoted as saying he would only accept campaign finance reforms recommended by the PDC and nobody else. Assuming this accurately represents Chopp’s position, this is troubling. When the Speaker of the House will outsource his legislative authority to the bureaucratic agencies, then genuine reform becomes impossible.
Can the PDC fix some of the structural problems and make improvements? Sure. However, some of the reforms must come from the legislature and Frank Chopp should accept this reality and the responsibility that comes with his position. Bureaucracy tends to exist primarily to perpetuate itself and expand its own power, regardless of the impact on everyone else. This is not a conspiracy, it is just human nature. We elect politicians to represent us in Olympia so that they can overcome real problems and perhaps attempt to fix them. Abdicating responsibility is not leadership.
It could be true that this is a Don Quixote quest tilting at the windmills of campaign finance reform in our state. Perhaps expecting them to be simplified, clarified, fixed, or changed in order to make compliance easier is a Utopian scheme and a silly dream. However, it is worth the effort, and once begun it is best to see it through to some type of completion or resolution. The worst that could happen is compliance levels with the current arcane rules improve greatly. However, if some type of success can be found to make it easier for citizens to participate in the political process, then it will be worth the effort. This is only the beginning.
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…
Seattle Times and related background articles:
Seattle Times – May 17, 2017 – “Political parties should set example with campaign laws, not flout them” (Editorial positive about Glen’s exposing of the truth)
Seattle Times – May 12, 2017 – “Washington AG’s office sues King County Democrats over alleged campaign violations” (Story about AG filing lawsuit based on one of Glen’s notices)
Inlander – May 12, 2017 – “AG lawsuit says Spokane County Dems’ financial reporting problems have lasted years, continue to this day” (good, detailed story about AG lawsuit filed based on Glen’s complaint)
Spokesman Review – May 12, 2017 – “Washington takes Spokane Democrats to court charging campaign reporting violations” (story about AG filing lawsuit based on Glen’s complaint)
Redoubt News – May 12, 2017 – “Citizen Action Snage Multiple Washington Democrats” (Idaho conservative blog site – overview of some of Glen’s complaints exposing campaign finance violations)
Kent Reporter – May 12, 2017 – “King County Democratic Central Committee faces campaign finance complaint” (article about the AG filing a lawsuit based on Glen’s notice to the AG)
Edmonds Beacon – April 21, 2017 – LTE “Strom Peterson complaint ‘frivolous’” (angry LTE about Glen’s complaint filed against Rep. Strom Peterson who was sued by the AG)
Inlander – April 17, 2017 -“Unreported poll previewed a Condon vs. Stuckart mayoral battle that never was” (Another article from Spokane partly about a second complaint filed by Glen)
Federal Way Mirror – April 14, 2017 – “Flygare and Political Strategy” (article about Glen’s complaint against local candidate(Flygare) and that candidates poor response)
Inlander – April 14, 2017 – “Drumheller No! When Spokane County Dems used scholarship money to pay for operations, some members were furious” (An article about a scandal exposed by Glen’s PDC complaint against Spokane County Dems)
Inlander – April 13, 2017 – “Dems in Disarray” (An article about PDC complaint filed by Glen on Spokane County Democrats)
Edmonds Beacon -April 12, 2017 – “Strom Peterson admits to disclosure violations” (Another article about Glen’s PDC work)
KUOW – April 11, 2017 –“Here’s what Tea Party training looks like in Washington State” (this article makes Glen look way more important than he is, but it shows a typical activism training session)
B-Town Blog – April 8, 2017 – “Conservative whistleblower has filed 40 public disclosure cases, including against Berkowitz” (local blogger angry about Glen)
Federal Way Mirror – April 7, 2017 – “Public Disclosure Commission investigating Council Candidate” (Federal Way Council candidate Roger Flygar wants to sue Glen for libel when Glen reported him to the PDC for failure to file campaign disclosure documents – this was the printed paper edition) and this was the live link posted a few days later: “Public Disclosure Commission investigating Council Candidate”
Tacoma News Tribune Editorial – March 18, 2017 – “Stop the PDC from becoming the Petty Complaint Department” (mainly focused on attacking Glen Morgan – note, major changes made after multiple factual errors were pointed out to the editors)
Tacoma News Tribune Guest Editorial – March 24, 2017 – “Washington PDC needs fixing: Don’t blame the messenger” (to their credit, the TNT let Glen post a response to their editorial)
The Columbian Editorial – March 23, 2017 – “In our view: Sunshine worth the Price” (surprisingly, the Columbian wrote a positive editorial about Glen’s PDC complaints – particularly impressive considering this video and this article Glen produced which were pretty critical of the Columbian)
The Olympian Editorial – March 16, 2017 – “Speaker Chopp earned his fine” (a rare positive editorial from the Olympian about Glen’s PDC work – particularly since Glen has been repeatedly critical about the Olympian as well)
Spokesman Review – March 17, 2017 – “Western Washington political activist alleges campaign finance violations by Spokane Democrats” (article about complaint Glen filed exposing very significant PDC violations by Spokane County Democrats)
Seattle Times – March 15, 2017 – “Frank Chopp pays $1700 fine over campaign-finance violations” (another spin on Glen’s complaint against Speaker Chopp)
Seattle PI – March 14, 2017 – “Speaker Chopp will pay $6,469 in penalties for campaign reporting violations” (article about complaint filed by Glen against Speaker Chopp)
Tacoma News Tribune – “House Speaker hit with campaign finance complaint in growing tug of war” (first traditional media report on the Speaker Chopp complaint – same article reprinted in Olympian and Bellingham Herald)
The Olympian – December 22, 2016 – “‘Everybody is in violation of the PDC,’ says activist as attorney general files complaints” (First article about AG investigating Jim Cooper based on Glen’s complaints)
The Olympian – November 7, 2016 – “Last week, it was a death threat. This week, he’s getting sued for election robocalls” (It was a busy election season for Glen)
KOMO News – November 3, 2016 – “Thurston County Race Includes Death Threat and Criminal Investigation” (KOMO news did a short video on the death threat against Glen Morgan by Democrat official)
The Olympian – November 2, 2016 – “Man investigated for death threat tells deputy he was ‘fed up’ after robocall” (article about Democrat PCO who threatened to kill Glen)
Lawsuits and other pending complaints:
State Attorney General Press Releases Initiated by Author’s Complaints
Background Articles on JZ Knight/Ramtha Campaign Finance Scandals