Budget depleted by legal expenses in case against Tim Eyman

The state Public Disclosure Commission overspent for legal services by $302,000 through April.

OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s legal pursuit of Tim Eyman is contributing to a growing pool of red ink for the state agency that enforces Washington’s campaign finance laws.

Through April, Ferguson’s office had billed the state Public Disclosure Commission $361,907 for handling a civil suit alleging Eyman secretly moved campaign funds between two initiatives in 2012 and received kickbacks from the company he hired to collect signatures.

When expenses for other cases and commission attorneys are added in, the PDC had overspent its legal services budget by $302,000 through April. The amount is expected to increase before the fiscal year ends June 30.

The Eyman case is the largest billing from the campaign finance unit, PDC Executive Director Peter Lavallee told commissioners at their May 24 meeting.

“It is pretty clear that one unit within the attorney general’s office and one case within that unit are driving all of our cost overruns,” Lavallee said. “It may be a story we already knew but it is somewhat eye-opening to see the specific numbers.”

The commission, created by a voter initiative in 1972, administers and enforces the state’s campaign finance laws. It maintains a database of political contributions and expenditures and its staff reviews and investigates complaints of finance law violations.

Commissioners can refer serious and complex cases of alleged campaign violations to the Office of the Attorney General. Typically, they do this because Ferguson can obtain larger penalties than the commission can. That’s what they did with Eyman. The PDC staff investigated and commissioners, after reviewing the findings, referred the case to Ferguson because they believed the violations were so egregious.

In addition, the agency pays for services of assistant attorney generals to advise commissioners and PDC staff.

Through April, billings for investigations, enforcement and general services from the Attorney General’s Office had totalled $585,500, compared with the amount penciled in for such expenses — $282,690.

That tally of expenses nearly eats up the entire $678,000 allotted for legal services in the agency’s current two-year $6.9 million budget that runs through mid-2019.

Lavallee told commissioners the overrun in this account is not hindering the rest of the agency’s day-to-day operations.

It does mean they will need to ask lawmakers in 2019 to provide money to mop up the red ink. They’ve undertaken a similar fix-it-after-the-fact approach the past couple of years, Lavallee said.

“It is not ideal when we go hat in hand to the Legislature and say, ‘Oops, it happened again.’ These billings, for good reasons and important cases but no cause of ours, have exceeded our allotment,” he said. “It’s not a great position to be in.”

Brionna Aho, communications director for the Attorney General’s Office, acknowledged the PDC’s fiscal challenge. As the state wins cases and collects attorney fees, the commission should have access to new resources, she said.

The Eyman case is an example. The suit was filed 15 months ago against Eyman and principals of Citizen Solutions, the signature-gathering firm. A Thurston County Superior Court judge recently found them in contempt for not turning over documents sought by the state. The judge has ordered them to to pay $35,722.30 in attorney fees to cover expenses covering the contempt motions.

“As soon as they pay, that money will go to the PDC,” Aho said in an email.

Another example involves the Grocery Manufacturing Association, which continues to appeal an $18 million penalty levied against it for campaign violations in a 2013 initiative campaign.

“Our fees in the GMA case currently total more than $3 million,” she said. “That will go to the PDC when this case is resolved.”

“So this challenge is only a temporary one as we wait for these big cases to resolve. The solution is for the Legislature to provide adequate funding for the PDC in the interim,” she said.

Next month, a state law overhauling how the commission handles complaints will take effect. Commissioners hope the changes result in speedier resolutions and fewer court battles.

“I don’t think it’s a panacea to the problem because there will still be referrals to the Attorney General’s Office,” Lavallee said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

This story has been edited for clarification.

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