OLYMPIA — Aaron Reardon, the former Snohomish County executive who resigned in 2013 after a series of scandals, was fined $4,200 Thursday for repeatedly violating campaign laws in the 2011 election.
The state Public Disclosure Commission voted unanimously to impose the maximum penalty after determining Reardon illegally used the public resources of his office.
“I feel like this is one of the most egregious cases I’ve seen,” said Commission Chairwoman Katrina Asay, an ex-state lawmaker and a former mayor of the city of Milton.
A three-year PDC investigation found Reardon made hundreds of calls and texts on his county cellphone and conducted 56 campaign-related meetings with a top adviser in the executive’s office.
It also determined that Reardon placed on his staff Kevin Hulten, an aide who spent substantial time engaged in a campaign to undermine the candidacy of Mike Hope. The Republican former state legislator had challenged Reardon’s bid for a third term as executive in 2011.
Reardon now lives in California and is not expected to return to Washington politics. He did not attend Thursday’s commission meeting.
He has denied wrongdoing and his attorney tried to get the civil charges dismissed as too thin and “statutorily defective.”
But commissioners weren’t buying it.
“It was just a case that caused me a lot of concern because it was so blatant,” said Commissioner John Bridges, a retired judge, who made the motion.
Asay explained that she found the case egregious because Reardon is “somebody that should have known and could have easily taken precautions to be above reproach.”
Asay acknowledged she would have liked to have imposed a larger fine. But it was not within the panel’s power and it was time to put the case behind them, she said.
“It is not like he got off Scot-free. He is out of office. He is out of the area. He is out of our lives so to speak,” she said. “I don’t think we’re ever going to have to deal with Mr. Reardon again. And when I say ‘we,’ I mean the people of the state of Washington.”
While Reardon could not be reached, his lawyer, Jim Johanson of Edmonds, said they were not surprised by the outcome. He also insisted that the evidence gathered in the investigation shows Reardon violated no laws.
“We’re still a little disappointed. We were hoping that they would listen to their own evidence,” he said.
Reardon might appeal.
“We want to see how the order is written,” Johanson said. “We haven’t made any final decision.”
The state investigation examined Reardon’s government phone records and concluded that he spent more than 50 hours on the county 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 same 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.
Similarly, Reardon contended the dozens of meetings he held in his office with a paid campaign advisor also were to get his advice on county government issues.
Reardon announced his decision to resign in 2013 just days after The Daily Herald published articles that demonstrated Hulten had carried out a covert campaign of on-the-job harassment and other mischief aimed at Reardon’s political rivals. The misconduct began during the 2011 election season, when Hulten joined Reardon’s staff as a legislative analyst, and continued until he was publicly unmasked.
Hulten became the focus of a criminal investigation and was convicted of tampering with evidence after admitting he wiped data from a laptop that investigators planned to examine. Even so, Hulten was unable to hide all his tracks, including a memo he wrote on an office computer in which he complained about not being properly rewarded for engaging in successful political “black hat jobs” on Reardon’s behalf.
Hulten, too, is charged with using county-issued computers and phones to carry out campaign-related activities. Among other things, investigators found evidence of Hulten using fake identities to attack Reardon’s political enemies.
Commissioners are scheduled to hear Hulten’s case in June. He’s also denied wrongdoing.
While current law carries a fine of up to $10,000, the law in 2011, when Reardon’s transgressions occurred, allowed for a fine of $1,700 for one violation and no more than $4,200 for multiple violations.
Commissioners could have asked Attorney General Bob Ferguson to intercede and pursue a larger fine for Reardon. But if Ferguson had agreed to take the case, the commission would have been charged up to $17,000 a month for the legal services.
With the amount of agency resources already expended on the case, the costs of spending even more outweighed the potential benefit of a bigger fine, said Evelyn Fielding Lopez, the commission’s executive director.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com.