Bill aims to curb the filing of campaign finance complaints

It would give the Public Disclosure Commission greater discretion in resolving violations.

OLYMPIA — Lawmakers passed a bill overhauling how Washington enforces its campaign finance laws but the state’s top lawyer and largest daily newspapers contend it goes too far and want the governor to veto it.

The legislation aims to make navigating the maze of reporting rules clearer so people can avoid making mistakes that incite election complaints against them for violations.

It would require every complaint go through the Public Disclosure Commission, whose staff would have greater discretion to resolve minor errors, the ability to investigate serious violations that could affect the outcome of an election, and authority to refer large and complex cases to Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

And, under the bill, one would no longer be able to file complaints directly with Ferguson’s office. Likewise, he could no longer pursue alleged wrongdoing on his own but would instead have to wait for the commission’s go-ahead.

House Bill 2938 represents the most far-reaching reform of a process created by a voter-approved initiative in 1972. It comes amid a surge in complaints against elected officials — including many state lawmakers — most of which involve blunders of administrative process rather than intentional failure to disclose contributions and expenditures.

There are an estimated 800 complaints in the commission queue now while nearly 400 have been filed with the attorney general since January 2017. Lawmakers increased the commission budget by $1.2 million of which $875,000 is aimed at hiring additional staff to clear out the backlog and implement the bill, if signed.

“It’s a gigantic mess,” said Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, prime sponsor of the legislation.

The bill doesn’t affect any existing complaints. And it won’t stop new ones from getting filed, but the hope is the number will decline if the proposed changes increase compliance, supporters said.

“We want the system to be more understandable,” said Anne Levinson, chairwoman of the five-member citizen commission. Levinson worked on developing the language. “For candidates and elected officials who are trying to do the right thing, we need have the system set up for them to be able to get it right.”

Ferguson, in a March 8 letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, requested a full veto and called the provision eliminating his independent authority to enforce campaign finance laws “most troubling.”

“Strong enforcement requires speed, flexibility, and nimbleness — qualities my Campaign Finance Unit has demonstrated. Why would we add a layer of bureaucracy to slow down enforcement?” he wrote.

This provision is the chief reason cited by Allied Daily Newspapers in its request for a veto. The group represents the state’s largest daily newspapers, including The Daily Herald.

“We believe that removing that authority is not in the interest of transparency,” Executive Director Rowland Thompson wrote the governor. “We fear that if the state is unable to adequately enforce significant violations, it will encourage more entities to attempt to skirt our campaign finance laws, resulting in more dark money entering into our state and less transparent elections.”

Hudgins and Levinson both said they do not think the bill lessens Ferguson’s ability to investigate and follow up on significant cases. It just makes clear the commission will serve as the gatekeeper through which complaints must travel.

Inslee is slated to take action on the bill March 27, according to his staff.

A particular target of the bill is what’s known as citizen action complaints. Under existing law, a person can file one with either the commission or the Office of the Attorney General. Then whoever receives it has 45 days to act in some manner, otherwise the person who filed can pursue a lawsuit on their own.

With the new bill, the process likely will be more rigorous. The Public Disclosure Commission will get every complaint and have 90 days to decide if an investigation is merited, or not, or if the case should be referred to the attorney general. A person could only go to court if the commission made no determination at all.

“I’m a little nervous with the way the bill is written. The PDC could make it very difficult to ever use it,” said Glen Morgan, the state’s most prolific filer of complaints. In the past couple of years he said he’s filed 322 complaints with the PDC and a little less than 300 citizen action complaints to the attorney general.

In an interview, Ferguson said he understood the Legislature was “highly motivated” to do something with campaign finance laws because of the volume of complaints.

But the volume won’t decline and the proposed reforms won’t deliver the results sought, he said.

“Do I think this bill was a solution in search of a problem? Yes,” he said. “There will come a time when people regret it.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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