Last month, the Pierce County Democrats settled a lawsuit brought by the Washington State Attorney General for $38,520 for violating campaign finance laws. This lawsuit was initiated by a complaint filed by this author on May 11 of this year. This legal settlement raises a variety of questions from close observers, and it also brings hope to an embattled state Democrat Party, which has been struggling with the public exposure of widespread violations of the state’s campaign finance laws in recent years (see this article about some of these cases).
According to the Attorney General, the Pierce County Democrats (strong supporters of Attorney General Bob Ferguson during his 2016 re-election campaign) were primarily caught violating the campaign finance laws in the following ways (original complaint linked here, and original lawsuit linked here):
- Failed to timely disclose $63,643 in contributions it received on 92 separate reports, up to 179 days late.
- Failed to timely disclose $90,357.95 in expenditures (e.g. political donations) made on 16 separate reports, up to 171 days late. For example, the committee contributed $15,000 to a Pierce County candidate before the 2016 general election. The committee was required to report this contribution a week before the election and did not do so until December — more than a month after Election Day.
- Failed to file any reports for 2017 until after the committee learned the Attorney General’s Office was investigating. These 2017 reports were up to 146 days late.
- Failed to timely disclose debts and obligations in 2016. No corrective action has been taken to report these debts.
As the settlement documents (linked here) filed in Thurston County Superior Court prove, the Pierce County Democrats were fined $31,780, with $15,890 of this fine suspended for four years, contingent upon not committing any additional violations of the state’s campaign finance laws. This fine is sent to Washington State’s general fund where it promptly disappears like the rest of the state budget. Additionally, the Pierce County Democrats reimbursed the Attorney General $5000 in attorney costs, $1500 in investigative costs, and another $240 in court costs. This totalled $38, 520 in fees and fines.
Several aspects of this case uniquely stand out for political insiders tracking these types of legal settlements.
First, the Pierce County Democrats have been put on a payment plan for the $22,630 portion of this settlement which must be paid to the state. According to the terms outlined in the agreement, the Pierce County Democrats must pay $3,000 on Jan 1st and July 1st of each year starting in 2018, until the total amount is paid in 2021. This is a sweetheart settlement payment plan which is unique in the history of campaign finance settlements. A partial list of these settlements can be found here, and no other organization was given such generous payment plan terms. It is hoped by the dozens of political action committees and candidates who also violated these laws that payment plans similar to the Pierce County Democrat settlement can be created for them. Most of these organizations were supporters of Attorney General Bob Ferguson in his 2016 election campaign, and payment plans like this one will help demonstrate how wise that political support was. It is unclear if similar payment plans would be extended to Republicans who did not support Ferguson.
This settlement was greeted with particular joy by the Spokane County Democrats who committed significantly more egregious violations of the campaign finance laws and were concerned about their ability to pay the inevitable fine. The other bonus to new settlement deals like the Pierce County case is that current board members of the political committees (who often only serve two year terms) can kick the payment can down the road into the next elected board’s lap. Democrat Party insiders are understandably celebrating this windfall. This is why most Democratic political committees and candidates are begging Democrat Attorney General Bob Ferguson to sue them as part of their legal strategy. No similar settlement plan has been offered to any Republican candidate or organization who committed similar violations.
Secondly, consistent with a recent trend, the Attorney General’s office has stopped issuing press releases when a Democratic affiliated organization is caught violating the campaign finance laws or a settlement has been reached with them. For example, this Pierce County Democrat settlement was announced only via tweet. A recent settlement with Democrat Legislator Strom Peterson was also announced exclusively via tweet (and the settlement is still not included the AG’s list of campaign finance settlements). (*update 11/30 – after this article was published, the AG finally updated their list in response). A recent settlement with Democrat State Senator Sam Hunt didn’t merit either a tweet or a press release. This stands in stark contrast to press releases released when a legal appeal was won against the Freedom Foundation (see here, here, and here), or the three press releases about Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman’s campaign finance lawsuit (linked here, here, and here). This also stands in particularly unique contrast to the press release storm for Initiative activist Tim Eyman, who merits a press release almost monthly for his campaign finance lawsuit (see below for 9 recent examples).
Finally, it should be noted that the attorney representing the Pierce County Democrats is the former Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) Executive Director Evelyn Lopez, who recently lost a political campaign during the primary for Mayor of Tacoma last summer. Lopez was accused by the Republican State Senate and House Caucuses of exerting partisan bias while managing the PDC. I was able to interact with former Director Lopez on several occasions last year and early this year before her departure, and I found her to be professional and courteous.
However, political insiders believe her departure was fueled by the Republican Caucus accusations of partisanship. Her recent foray into partisan legal representation, and her outspoken political statements on Facebook appear to provide additional evidence which supports those Republican accusations and some Republican conspiracy theories about political bias at this agency.
Regardless, this settlement is cause for celebration among the other Democrat Party political committees who can expect similar kid glove treatment from the Attorney General who they supported during his recent election campaign. Meanwhile, the Attorney General’s office is continuing to prosecute an unemployed cobbler and a retired judge in Grant County for $454,000 for a $3900 anonymous 2014 local political mailer.
It is good to see consistency and proportionality in the enforcement of our state’s campaign finance laws.
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 and documents:
Pierce County Settlement Document (Thurston Superior Court #17-2-04616-34 , filed October 27, 2017) (if document is missing – you can download it here)
AG lawsuit against Pierce County Democrats (Thurston Superior Court #17-2-04616-34) filed August 14, 2017) (if document is missing – you can download it here)
AG’s press release about initial lawsuit filed against Pierce County Democrats (shortly after this, the AG stopped issuing press releases about settlements against Democrat politicians or committees)
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