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Referendum 71 donors’ names can’t remain secret, state rules

The Public Disclosure Commission says people have a right to know who backs the controversial cause.

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By Jerry Cornfield
Herald Writer
OLYMPIA – Sponsors of Referendum 71 must provide names and addresses of those who donated to their campaign to repeal a law that would expand the rights of same-sex couples, the state Public Disclosure Commission ruled Thursday.
Commissioners voted 4-0 to deny Protect Marriage Washington’s request to partially or fully shield the names from public view despite arguments that donors are being threatened by those trying to scare them out of the political process.
“What is happening in Washington is voter intimidation and voter oppression and First Amendment rights suppression,” the group’s attorney, Stephen Pidgeon of Everett, told commissioners during a 75-minute hearing.
Larry Stickney of Arlington, the campaign manager and a donor, testified of receiving “vile, obscene, threatening, nasty” voice messages and e-mails the content of which “would make a sailor blush.”
“They were threatening. They were vicious,” he said, noting he asked authorities to investigate e-mails from a Bellingham blogger he considered threatened the safety of his family. No charges have been filed.
Commissioners said they empathized with him and others who’ve been harassed but did not find clear and convincing evidence that what’s occurred is preventing the political committee from conducting its campaign.
“I deeply regret you have suffered insults. I find that reprehensible and hope it stops,” said commissioner Jane Noland. “For myself, I don’t think you have shown unreasonable hardship, and granting this would frustrate the public disclosure act.”
Commissioner Ken Schellberg said exempting this group would eventually lead to an end to public disclosure in any hard-fought and intense political fight.
Pidgeon said he was not surprised by Thursday’s decision and will now consider whether to appeal the ruling in federal court.
Sponsors are already fighting Secretary of State Sam Reed in federal court to prevent him from giving out names and addresses of the nearly 138,000 people who signed referendum petitions. The state has been banned from releasing the names pending a Sept. 3 hearing in Tacoma.
Protect Marriage Washington is a coalition of churches, religious groups and socially conservative organizations pushing to get Referendum 71 on the November ballot.
It would let voters decide whether to retain or repeal a law making state registered same-sex partnerships legally indistinguishable from married couples in Washington.
The group needs at least 120,577 signatures of valid voters to qualify. The state elections office is expected to finish its petition verification process by Tuesday.
Under state law, candidates and political committees file names of contributors to the commission, which posts the information online on the agency’s Web site.
Protect Marriage Washington has mostly complied; it filed one report with initials only but later submitted the proper paperwork. The group has raised $35,816 from a little more than 250 contributors.
In the past, the Public Disclosure Commission did allow the Socialist Workers Party and Freedom Socialists Party to keep its donor list private. Those are minor parties with few donors and little or no impact on elections. Commissioners also noticed party members provided evidence they had been victims of violence and surveillance by the government.
Referendum 71 is a debate of statewide importance and there’s been intense exchange but not the violence demonstrated by those small political parties.
Commission Chairman Jim Clements, a former Republican state senator, said disclosure is an extension of the public’s right to know in such a controversial matter and sponsors of the referendum shouldn’t be surprised by what’s occurred.
“You took on the issue, Larry,” he said, addressing Stickney, “and I think you knew very well that this was not going to be a cakewalk.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;
Story tags » ArlingtonEverettStateElectionsChurchesFamilyBellinghamOlympiaTacoma

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