LYNNWOOD — A third campaign finance complaint has been filed against a 21-year-old candidate who won a seat on the Lynnwood City Council this month.
The new case against Joshua Binda comes from Lynnwood Times publisher and owner Mario Lotmore, who ran as a Republican for state Senate in 2018. Lotmore wrote an article published Nov. 1, raising questions about whether Binda violated campaign finance laws.
In an interview Wednesday, the progressive candidate called it a “smear campaign.”
The first two state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) complaints, filed by other people, alleged misuse of funds. They came after Binda made changes to filings in the days leading up to last week’s election, showing thousands of dollars spent on plane tickets, dental work, car towing, rent and tickets to events, among other things.
Binda acknowledged mistakes and said he personally reimbursed the campaign.
The Lynnwood City Council will discuss potential litigation and ethics concerns related to Binda’s campaign finances in an executive session next week. Lynnwood officials have been in talks with the city attorney, Councilmember Shannon Sessions said at a Monday council meeting.
Now, in a story and a PDC complaint of his own, Lotmore accuses Binda of not allowing him to inspect finances in a timely or thorough fashion before the election. Under state law, campaign books must be open to public analysis during the 10 business days prior to an election. The finances must be available within 48 hours of a request for inspection.
Lotmore wrote he made the request at 2:47 p.m. on Oct. 30. The original inspection meeting at a Lynnwood coffee shop was scheduled for 1 p.m. Nov. 1, within 48 hours. Binda rescheduled for 4 p.m. that day, making it over 49 hours since the request, according to Lotmore’s complaint.
State regulations also say the books should reflect all contributions and purchases. Lotmore wrote the records he saw did not include all appropriate documents. He reported Binda’s campaign provided no bank statements, only a four-page transaction history that did not include all expenditures or the underlying receipts and invoices.
Binda’s campaign consultant, Riall Johnson, said that’s not true. They let Lotmore look through at least 10 pages of bank statements and transactions, Johnson said.
Given his position as owner and a writer at a news outlet reporting on Binda’s campaign, Lotmore runs the risk of a conflict of interest, said George Erb, secretary of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, in an email.
“By filing a complaint against a Lynnwood City Council member, Lotmore the publisher runs the risk of aligning — or even appearing to align — his news site with partisans,” Erb wrote. “Such an act would be contrary to the values of professional journalists, in particular the value of independent reporting.”
Erb, a journalism instructor at Western Washington University, added it’s “hard to see how the interests of either the newsroom or the business are well served” by Lotmore’s move.
Mike Fancher, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, wrote in an email he didn’t have a problem with Lotmore filing his complaint since it was central to his journalistic efforts. He said there are ethical challenges in this case and that the solution is transparency.
“At a minimum, Mario Lotmore’s biography on the newspaper’s website should include his candidacy and volunteering for the Republican Party,” wrote Fancher, the former executive editor of The Seattle Times.
But Fancher noted Lotmore’s work was vital to bringing Binda’s campaign finance issues to light.
The Lynnwood Times publisher did not respond to requests for comment.
Journalists sometimes file Public Disclosure Commission complaints when elected officials and organizations get in the way of their reporting. For example, Eli Sanders, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter for The Stranger newspaper in Seattle, has filed complaints against Facebook and Google over their political advertising in Washington. His work has led to lawsuits filed by the state attorney general’s office and changes to company advertising policies.
As of Tuesday, Binda’s lead in the City Council race appeared insurmountable. He had almost 53% of the vote. He said he wants to go to City Hall with a “clean slate,” and he is excited “to be a strong voice for the community and represent them in the best way I can.”