OLYMPIA — An attorney for Aaron Reardon says civil charges accusing the former Snohomish County Executive of repeatedly violating campaign laws during the 2011 election should be dismissed because the allegations are too thin and “statutorily defective.”
The assistant state attorney general who advises staff of Washington’s election watchdog agency counters that the criticism is off base and the case should move forward to a hearing.
The state Public Disclosure Commission is scheduled Thursday to consider the dismissal motion brought by Reardon’s attorney, Jim Johanson, of Edmonds.
In a 23-page pleading filed March 10, Johanson said the complaint against Reardon is defective because it references a statute that wasn’t in effect when the alleged misconduct occurred.
Johanson also asserts the case should be dropped because the commission investigation failed to turn up evidence that Reardon violated the law.
Johanson is misreading the complaint, Assistant State Attorney General Chad Standifer wrote. Reardon is charged under the law that was in effect in four years ago and notes the law has since been amended.
Meanwhile, Reardon “relies almost entirely on his own self-serving statements” that he did no wrong and can’t recall using his county issued cellphone for campaign purposes, Standifer wrote.
Records show Reardon spent more than 50 hours on his county-issued cellphone talking with people he hired to work on his re-election bid. PDC investigators said phone bills show Reardon spoke just 16 times with those people in the two years leading up to the election.
Reardon told investigators that the 2011 calls were to seek advice on county government issues, and he would “nevertheless have the Commission believe that at the same time he was paying these consultants thousands of dollars to work on his campaign, none of his telephone discussions related to that campaign,” Standifer added.
The attorney encouraged the commission to send Reardon’s’ case to a full hearing, now scheduled for late April.
Reardon in 2011 triumphed over Republican Mike Hope to win a third term as county executive. But even before votes were cast, there was mounting evidence he’d been ignoring state laws that prohibit political campaigns from making use of public resources, including staff time, office space and equipment such as government cellphones.
Reardon resigned as executive in 2013, a decision announced just days after The Daily Herald published articles that demonstrated his aide Kevin Hulten had engaged in a covert campaign of on-the-job harassment and other mischief aimed at Reardon’s political rivals. The misconduct in support of Reardon started during the 2011 election season not long after Hulten joined the former county executive’s staff as a legislative analyst.
Reardon and Hulten both wound up the focus of public disclosure complaints. After more than three years of investigation they were charged in December.
The case against Reardon focuses largely on his phone habits. Hulten is charged with using county-issued computers and phones to carry out campaign-related activities. Investigators also found evidence of Hulten using fake identities to attack Reardon’s political enemies, including Hope.
Meanwhile, Johanson said he continues to talk with the commission’s attorney about potentially settling the case against Reardon.
“We’re still talking, shooting drafts back and forth. We just haven’t found the right language,” Johanson said. “If we don’t win the motions and if we don’t settle, I imagine we would go to hearing.”
Commissioners also may eventually need to clarify the penalty Reardon and Hulten might face.
Johanson argues the amount can be no more than $1,700 for a single violation and a maximum $4,200 for multiple violations. That is what state law dictated in 2011, he said.
Standifer, the assistant state attorney general, said a $10,000 fine is allowed based on revisions in the law enacted in 2012. He argues commissioners are able to retroactively seek the higher penalty.
But it could wind up even higher.
Another provision in state law allows for a civil penalty of $10,000 for each violation but it’s never been applied, said PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson. Commissioners may discuss how to interpret their penalty authority as part of Thursday’s hearing, she said.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com.