Pursuit of campaign-spending violations breaks the budget

The agency seeks $900K to pay legal bills arising from cases against Eyman and others.

OLYMPIA — Enforcing Washington’s campaign finance laws is proving more expensive than expected.

The Public Disclosure Commission is in need of hundreds of thousands of additional dollars to cover the tab of lawsuits against Tim Eyman and others accused of being political scofflaws.

Commissioners will ask the governor and state lawmakers for $889,000 in the 2019 supplemental budget to pay legal bills from the Office of the Attorney General, which handles complex cases at the request of the commission.

And the citizen commission is seeking $1.97 million in the next two-year state budget for services of Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s staff. The amount is more than double what the agency received in the current budget.

“The only hole in our budget is the attorney general’s cost. It is a perennial cost,” said Peter Lavallee, the commission’s executive director. “I anticipate there will continue to be significant costs from existing cases and future referrals.”

None of this is coming as a surprise to commissioners.

The current budget provides the commission with $741,000 for legal fees, which is a little less than $31,000 per month. Actual costs have increased steadily since October 2017. Monthly billings averaged roughly $94,000 from March through June, creating the pool of red ink that commissioners hope to mop up with supplemental money.

Lavallee said getting more money for legal services in the next budget will help avert another shortfall.

“An increased allotment will ensure the AGO can continue to pursue its campaign-finance-enforcement work on behalf of the state, including complex cases,” he wrote in the agency’s budget request to Gov. Jay Inslee.

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. Its staff reviews and investigates complaints of finance law violations.

Commissioners can refer serious and complicated cases of alleged campaign violations to the attorney general, whose office can obtain larger penalties than the commission.

With Eyman, the PDC staff investigated allegations he secretly moved funds between two initiative campaigns in 2012 and received kickbacks from the firm that collected signatures for the measures. Commissioners, after reviewing the findings, believed the violations were so egregious they referred the case to the attorney general in September 2015.

Eyman has denied wrongdoing.

Ferguson filed his civil suit in March 2017. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, his office billed the commission $487,399 for this one case. The tab was $38,800 in July, the most recently reported expenditure.

Another prominent case referred by the commission led to Ferguson suing the Grocery Manufacturing Association for violations in a 2013 initiative campaign. An $18 million verdict for the state is under appeal.

The attorney general’s office has acknowledged the financial challenge faced by the commission. As the state wins cases and collects attorney fees, those resources can help alleviate the strain, a spokeswoman for the office has said.

For example, in the Grocery Manufacturing Association, attorney fees totaled around $3 million at the end of May.

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

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