When Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson decided to emphasize aggressive enforcement of the state’s campaign finance laws, his intention was to focus on outsiders like initiative activist Tim Eyman, deep pockets like the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and the occasional political targets of opportunity like Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman. He never expected his vigorous promotion of the state’s Byzantine campaign finance laws would encourage some people (like this author) to expose a broader spectrum of campaign finance violators, which included some of Ferguson’s Democratic allies. This was never part of the plan.
In the AG’s office, it just wasn’t fair to sue Democrats
One of Ferguson’s protege hires for the campaign finance unit Ferguson created was former AG prosecutor Walter Smith, who was a longtime hyper partisan who “resigned” from the AG’s office a few weeks ago because he felt it was “unfair” for the office to be suing so many Democratic politicians and committees. Mr. Smith promptly formed a law firm a few blocks from the AG’s office and immediately started filing campaign finance complaints (and lawsuits), against Republicans as retaliation for this “unfairness.”
Mr. Smith, as a recent employee of the AG’s office may have used his access to proprietary information obtained while paid by the state’s taxpayers to now personally enrich himself. His new, two person “firm” (his partner is a former AG employee as well) is the attorney in these lawsuits, so he can profit from the attorney fees. Serious questions have been raised about the likelihood of collusion by other employees at the AG’s office in Smith’s recent activities (a serious ethical breach for all involved, and a major violation of the state’s public employees ethics laws if proven true).
Additional questions are being raised as to whether Smith actually pursued the campaign finance cases against Democrats (which he said were “unfair”) with the same diligence he used in attacking Tim Eyman, Kim Wyman, and an unemployed cobbler and retired judge from Grant County (now being charged $454,000 for a $3900 illegal mailer produced a few years ago in a local Grant County Prosecutor race). It now appears possible that Smith was colluding with and now cooperating with organizations and candidates who he supposedly was “investigating” while being paid by the taxpayer.
Whether Smith or Ferguson admit collusion or not, it is obvious that senior Democrats are bragging about their control and involvement in using AG employees to do their bidding right now. Some have even bragged about it on Facebook.
Does the campaign finance law treat everyone equally?
As I have written about before, the state’s campaign finance laws appear to have had a disparate impact on Republicans over the last 20 years when compared to Democrats. This doesn’t necessarily mean the law was enforced unequally during this time. Part of the reason for this disparate impact was the fact that the campaign finance laws are mostly enforced as a complaint driven process. Over the last 20 years, the Democrats have simply been more prolific and capable complainants (against Republicans and against fellow Democrats) than the Republicans. With a few notable exceptions, the Republicans mostly didn’t participate in the complaint side of the campaign finance laws, which ultimately created the problem many Democratic political committees and candidates are experiencing right now.
Since most Democrat politicians and committees could violate the state’s campaign finance laws with impunity, thanks to the Republican unwillingness to pay attention or inability to file complaints, it became inevitable that many Democratic affiliated committees and candidates would drift further and further away from campaign finance law compliance. Sometimes this became brazen, egregious wholesale violation of the statute like the Spokane County Democrats, and sometimes it is because nobody paid much attention to the law in the past. In other cases, the law is convoluted and unclear so that violations are inevitable no matter how much a campaign attempts to comply.
How did so many Democratic politicians and committees suddenly get in so much trouble?
The current campaign finance ruckus began last year during the 2016 campaign season. I created two small local political action committees (PACs) in Thurston County and engaged in the local political process. This involvement led to a variety of unfortunate, but typical overreactions by the Democratic Party. Responses included a death threat against me by a local Democratic PCO (not exactly a genius – leaving the voicemail from his home phone). A lawsuit was filed against me by the Washington State Democratic Party (it was petty and settled quickly). A Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) Complaint was filed against me by the Washington State Democratic Party (ultimately dismissed by the PDC a few months ago). Multiple other legal attacks targeted me from local Democratic politicians, activists, and donors. Fair enough. Nobody said participating in the political process was a “safe space,” and the Thurston County Democratic Party performed exceptionally poorly in 2016. They were lashing out and I am a convenient target for their hatred.
I also became inspired by Ferguson’s increased enthusiasm for the state’s campaign finance laws (the Wyman case was making the news at the time). Additionally, I had filed a PDC complaint against Olympia Democratic Senator Sam Hunt (among other local Democrats who were attacking me at the time) and he told the PDC I was ignorant of campaign finance laws. Hunt was right. Senator Sam Hunt inspired me to become less ignorant, and thus began a seemingly Quixotic campaign to expose the problems with our state’s campaign finance laws. Since I was being sued, threatened, and attacked by the Democratic Party, it made perfect sense to begin looking at how well they complied with the law. Their compliance was poor. Very poor.
Many Democratic politicians and committees go to court
Because of the complaints I have filed, the following politicians and committees were sued by the Washington State Attorney General’s office for campaign finance violations over the past 10 months or so:
- Theresa Purcell (D) – failed candidate for legislature in 19th Legislative District
- Jim Cooper (D) – failed candied for Thurston County Commission
- Kelsey Hulse (D) – failed candidate for Thurston County Commission
- Thurston County Democratic Central Committee
- Senator Sam Hunt (D) – Olympia, 22nd Leg. District
- Jay Manning (former Director, Dept. of Ecology)
- Speaker of the House Frank Chopp (D) – Seattle, 43rd Leg. District
- Representative Jeff Morris (D) – San Juans/Skagit, 40th Leg District
- Representative Strom Peterson (D) – Edmonds, 21st Leg District
- Spokane County Democratic Central Committee
- King County Democratic Central Committee
- San Juan County Democratic Central Committee
- Kittitas County Democratic Central Committee
- Pierce County Democratic Central Committee
- Sharlaine LaClair (D) – failed candidate for legislature (42nd District)
- Eastside Democratic Dinner Committee
- Washington North Idaho District Council Laborers PAC
- Bailey Stober, King County Democrats Chair (petition for documents)
In addition to these groups, lawsuits were also filed on behalf of the State of Washington against the People for Thurston PAC run by Jay Manning (former Director of the Washington State Department of Ecology) and sponsored by cult leader JZ Knight as well as the Island County Democratic Central Committee and the 11th Legislative District Democrats. More lawsuits will continue to be filed over the next few weeks.
These cases are what AG employee Walter Smith deemed as being “unfair,” so he quit. Possibly, he sabotaged the cases he was “working” on and then he began filing copy-cat complaints against Republican legislators, committees, this author, and others. Mr. Smith even has his own blog site where he appears fixated on this author.
The case for reform of the State’s campaign finance laws
I have argued from the beginning of this process last year that our state’s campaign finance laws need serious reform. Despite good intentions, they have been drafted and modified over the years to ensure that few can completely comply. This challenge with compliance is particularly true for political newcomers. Laws are written to help incumbents. Strong resistance to reform is crafted in the law because incumbents have no incentive to make the job easier for future challengers.
My efforts to expose the problems with the statute and build a statistically significant dataset of information which can be used for realistic reform continues to grow. When this is combined with the self-serving retaliation complaints filed by Ferguson’s former employee, Mr. Smith, the problems with the statute are impossible to ignore. By the time the next legislative session begins in January, there will be very few politicians of either political party in Olympia who have not been sued, fined, or found guilty of the state’s campaign finance laws. Few political committees will escape unscathed either.
The result should be obvious. Either we must believe that everyone in politics is a lawbreaker, or there is something wrong with the law. I have argued that reform of the law is needed, and made this case to two different PDC Directors and at public comment at the Public Disclosure Commission for almost a year now. However, any fixes or reform must come from the legislature as the PDC can only change some of the minor rule problems.
Of course, the challenge with reform will be that “reform” means different things to different people. Logical nonpartisan reform would lead to changes in the statute that would make compliance easier and would prioritize the disclosure of who funds campaigns over the minutia of minor technical violations currently made by everyone (often without willfulness or malice). However, many political insiders simply want to prevent politicians or committees of “their” party from being held to the same standard they want to apply to “the other guys.” This attitude won’t lead to effective reform.
Fortunately this Don Quixote campaign finance project is occurring during an off-year election cycle. This timing is optimal to expose the truth about the law with plenty of time for the legislature to find a bipartisan/nonpartisan fix before the full campaign season begins in 2018. Failure to craft meaningful reform will lead to another year of escalating complaints, lawsuits, and further crater the declining credibility of the AG’s office in this matter. If the legislature can’t reform the campaign finance laws during the next session, next year’s campaign finance complaint season is sure to become a discouraging wasteland of political litigation.
I’m sure somebody will “win,” but the pyrrhic victory amidst the ruins will be ugly…
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…
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