2-year-old Aaron Reardon election investigation stalled

  • By Noah Haglund, Scott North and Jerry Cornfield Herald Writers
  • Saturday, May 30, 2015 8:22pm
  • Local NewsLocal news

EVERETT — It’s been two years since Aaron Reardon walked away from his troubled tenure as Snohomish County executive.

When Reardon shut the door on his political career, he left behind a still-unresolved mess for the community that had elected him three times to the county’s highest office.

State election watchdogs continue to sift through gigabytes of evidence pointing to potential campaign violations during Reardon’s 2011 re-election bid.

The Reardon case now is the oldest open investigation on the Public Disclosure Commission docket. It could remain there awhile longer. There is a five-year statute of limitations.

State officials say they are working the Reardon case — and one they launched on his former aide, Kevin Hulten — but have been hampered by limited resources, an avalanche of other cases and the volume of evidence.

“It’s a complicated case and we lost some staff about the time those complaints were coming in,” commission spokeswoman Lori Anderson said last week. “We’re trying to keep up with the complaints that are coming in, we’re trying to keep up with the investigations that are underway.”

Good-government advocates worry that the delay, in this instance and others, could erode the public’s trust in the election process.

“It does not serve anyone well when a complaint is resolved many years after a violation is alleged,” said Anne Levinson, a recently appointed member of the Public Disclosure Commission.

Reardon, Hulten case complex

Once a meteoric force in the Democratic Party, Reardon resigned on May 31, 2013 following a string of scandals. As others attempted to clean up after him, he picked up stakes and moved to California.

So did Hulten, a junior aide who abused county resources to support Reardon’s political fortunes.

“It added difficulty to the process to have them (Reardon and Hulten) out of state,” Anderson said.

The political shenanigans surfaced during Reardon’s 2011 re-election campaign against Republican Mike Hope, then a state House member from Lake Stevens.

The agency, for now, is declining to say much about what its investigators have found, only that work continues.

Public records are full of evidence for state watchdogs to pore over.

Some of the biggest problems for Reardon are found in billings for the county-issued cellphone he carried while in office. A 2012 analysis by The Herald found the former county executive using the government phone to call and exchange text messages hundreds of times with key campaign staff and contractors who worked on his re-election effort. He also spent the equivalent of a workweek dialing up potential campaign donors when his schedule showed him holding a series of “in-office” meetings with staff.

It is against state law and county code for candidates to use any public resources in an election.

Records show Hulten, meanwhile, began targeting Reardon’s political rivals almost as soon as he started his county job in January 2011. Although he attempted to hide his tracks by destroying records, forensic analysis of county computers found digital evidence that, while on county time, Hulten built Reardon’s campaign website and publicized embarrassing records he dug up regarding Hope.

Hulten also worked closely with an Olympia attorney to file a Public Disclosure Commission complaint against Hope. That strategy backfired. State election watchdogs in April 2013 began investigating Hulten after The Herald published evidence showing he’d called the commission during work hours, claiming to be somebody else and complaining about Hope.

Reardon and Hulten have both denied engaging in any proscribed political activity. A document recovered from the computer in Hulten’s former county office, however, detailed his disappointment with Reardon for not rewarding what he called “black hat jobs.” Among the actions Hulten felt deserved more recognition were building Reardon’s campaign website and digging up materials used in political ads that targeted Hope.

Hulten last year spent a week on a work crew after pleading guilty to evidence tampering for scrubbing data from a county laptop.

Backlog of investigations

The Reardon and Hulten cases are among the roughly 30 active investigations pending before the Public Disclosure Commission. That doesn’t include a backlog from 2014 that the commission hasn’t decided whether to pursue.

Staffing shortages have compounded the situation. The agency was down to a single investigator from the summer of 2014 until this February. One of two investigators assigned to the Reardon and Hulten cases had to stop when he was promoted to be the acting assistant director.

Voters created the Public Disclosure Commission in 1972 to keep tabs on ethics and money in politics.

It’s best known for maintaining a database of political spending by candidates, lobbyists and political committees. A chief task is ensuring compliance with the state’s election laws.

It has gotten tougher for the commission to do its job.

Complaints are increasing and so too are their complexity. In each of the past two years, the commission received more than 115 complaints. There were 33 formal investigations begun in 2013 and 30 in 2014, according the agency’s annual reports.

Meanwhile, the commission is operating with fewer staff and less money.

State lawmakers trimmed the agency’s budget by 25 percent. There are now five fewer positions, including one less compliance officer than before the Recession. This year, the Democratic-controlled House has proposed restoring some money for upgrading technology while the Republican-controlled Senate is looking to further pare the agency’s funding.

Brian Sonntag, a former state auditor, said it’s critical that election watchdog investigations be resolved regardless of whether the persons involved remain in office.

“A decision has to be made. The issue is still relevant. It is still relevant to the public. It is still relevant to the people who brought the complaint,” he said. “It’s the issue that needs resolution.”

Sonntag speculated one reason for slow progress is a lack of will on the part of lawmakers to support the agency with necessary funding.

“That’s not a new issue. That’s been there since its inception,” he said.

With the state expecting to collect $3.2 billion more in taxes and fees in the next two years, lawmakers should be able to provide the commission with the money it needs, said Jason Mercier, a director of the Washington Policy Center, a think tank focused on free-market ideals. He also is a board member for the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

“It’s concerning to hear that you would run up against the statute of limitations in some of the investigations,” he said. “Providing the resources needed to allow timely and impartial investigation to help give the voters confidence in clean elections should be possible.”

Another long-running investigation involves Tim Eyman, the Mukilteo anti-tax activist who’s become a household name for filing initiatives in almost every election cycle since the late 1990s.

The complaint filed in August of 2012 focuses on Eyman’s Initiative 517, which would have made interfering with signature-gatherers a criminal offense. More than 60 percent of the state’s voters rejected I-517 in November 2013.

The complaint alleges that the 517 campaign failed to properly disclose campaign contributions and expenditures.

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

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