Lawmakers’ watchdog asks for money

OLYMPIA — Officials of the Public Disclosure Commission are turning to the politicians they police for the financial means to do their job more effectively.

The agency’s interim executive director has been asking lawmakers for more money in the next state budget to help deal with a backlog of enforcement cases.

Three of the longest unfinished investigations involve past and present political figures in Snohomish County including Aaron Reardon, the former county executive.

Fred Kiga, who took over at PDC on June 1, said budget cuts and layoffs in the past eight years have crippled the commission’s ability to carry out its mission.

“This work is important. It is part of that entire ecosystem of good government,” he said.

Kiga, a former chief of staff to Gov. Gary Locke, arrived at a critical time. Lawmakers are in the throes of a second special session to approve a new two-year state budget. The agency gets treated differently in the plans passed by the House and Senate.

The Democratic-controlled House would provide enough money to maintain staff and upgrade technology while the Republican-controlled Senate is looking to further pare the PDC’s level of funding though it does put some new dollars into technology improvements.

The most recent House spending plan would allot $4.7 million over the next two years for the commission, $577,000 more than the Senate.

While that is a tiny share of the roughly $38 billion budget getting negotiated, it is a significant sum for the 19-person agency.

Under the Senate budget, the job of general counsel would be eliminated and a portion of the savings used to hire a contract lawyer. Also, the Senate approach would axe one position handling requests from the public and another one dealing with the agency’s website and campaign finance database.

And it would reduce the number of commission meetings each year from 11 to six. The Senate does provide $200,000 to improve the computer system used by the staff.

The House budget would allow the PDC to aggressively attack its backlog of compliance cases and put $390,000 into updated technology to make the online database more easily accessible.

Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Government Operations and Security Committee, said the House approach will enable the agency to do its job better.

“I am really worried. If we don’t do something along the lines of what is in the House budget, the message to the public is we don’t want these cops on the beat that make sure we’re following the rules,” he said. “I don’t think we want to send that message.”

Voters created the Public Disclosure Commission in 1972 to keep tabs on ethics and money in politics. It maintains an exhaustive database of political spending by candidates, lobbyists and political committees.

It also investigates violations of state election laws. Complaints of misbehavior are increasing in number and complexity though at times in recent years there have been too few employees to conduct investigations. That’s led to long, unresolved investigations.

None are longer than the case involving former county executive Aaron Reardon. It is the commission’s oldest open investigation. It began in March 2012 and could remain there awhile longer. There is a five-year statute of limitations.

It involves allegations of illegal use of public resources for political purposes. A 2012 analysis by The Herald found Reardon used his government-issued cell 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.

Similarly, the commission is still working on a complaint filed against Kevin Hulten, an ex-Reardon staffer, for practicing politics on the public dime.

Records show Hulten 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’s misdeeds backfired, leading to a criminal investigation. He ultimately pleaded guilty to evidence tampering and served a week on a work crew.

A third case centers on initiative entrepreneur Tim Eyman of Mukilteo. It was filed in March 2013 and concerned his handling of donations to an initiative campaign.

It’s unclear when Kiga might learn the outcome of his efforts. A new state budget needs to be in place by the start of the fiscal year, July 1, or many state agencies, including the commission, will be shut down.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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