Election crush prompts PDC to delay Reardon probe

A state probe into evidence that Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon misused taxpayer resources to campaign for his 2011 re-election is unlikely to move ahead until next year.

The state Public Disclosure Commission confirmed it was looking into Reardon’s campaign practices in June, after a Washington State Patrol criminal investigation ended without charges. Then the state elections watchdog became inundated with more time-sensitive complaints related to the 2012 elections. That’s left staff playing catch-up, and unable, so far, to address the Reardon matter.

“Since July, we’ve gotten 100 new complaints,” commission spokeswoman Lori Anderson said last week.

Compounding the workload was the loss this fall of half of the commission’s investigative staff. That leaves two people largely responsible for 28 open investigations, including the Reardon case. Six of the pending cases have higher priority, Anderson said, because the state is legally obligated to complete the investigations within 45 days or risks getting stuck with court costs.

The Reardon case revolves around public records showing that the executive campaigned using his county-issued cellphone and staff at times when official calendars suggested he was conducting county business. The Herald and The Seattle Times early this year reported on the documents’ contents, which were released as part of the patrol investigation.

It’s up to the commission’s staff to decide whether to recommend civil charges against Reardon. If they do, the commission will schedule an enforcement hearing.

The PDC has the authority to levy civil fines. It may increase penalties for officials with previous run-ins over campaign issues. Reardon last year received a $750 fine from the PDC, with $500 of the amount suspended, for failing to report that outside groups paid for business trips in 2009.

While the state investigation remains on pause, Reardon faces a recall effort spearheaded by a Gold Bar political blogger who’s also an attorney. A hearing is scheduled Dec. 5 in Skagit County Superior Court, where the case was moved to avoid potential conflicts of interest in Snohomish County.

The petitioner, Anne Block, also submitted the initial complaint in the pending state campaign-finance investigation. Over the summer, an earlier attempt by Block to start a recall petition against Reardon was dismissed on a legal technicality.

Under state law, a recall petition must present evidence that an elected official has engaged in wrongdoing in office before advancing to the signature-gathering phase.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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