OLYMPIA — State election watchdogs on Thursday said they have charged Aaron Reardon and a former aide with repeated violations of state laws during Reardon’s 2011 re-election campaign for Snohomish County executive.
The civil violations carry monetary fines of up to $10,000 for each instance of the offense. The amount is up to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Reardon is accused of improperly using his office and county cell phone to conduct campaign business. The commission could decide that every time Reardon used the office, or that phone, it amounted to a new violation, PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson said.
The lengthy investigation concluded that Reardon hired Kevin Hulten as a legislative analyst in early 2011, and then turned him loose inside county offices to work on Reardon’s campaign to secure a third term in the county’s top elected job.
Hulten, formerly of Lake Stevens, was one of only two people Reardon personally hired during his time in office, and he hired him from close friend and state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.
“Mr. Hulten spent a significant amount of his work time on Mr. Reardon’s re-election campaign,” the charges say.
The investigation confirmed evidence of the misconduct as laid out in stories published by The Daily Herald from 2011 through 2013.
Among other things, investigators found Reardon used county phones to make hundreds of calls to campaign staff and prospective donors. It also found evidence of Hulten using fake identities to attack Reardon’s political enemies, including the former executive’s 2011 election opponent, former state Rep. Mike Hope.
After the 2011 election, The Herald pored over county phone records and Reardon’s office schedule. The analysis found he made more than 1,000 calls on his government cell phone to campaign staff and those who gave money to his re-election. That added up to 43 hours dialing for dollars while he was purportedly managing county business.
PDC staff performed a similar analysis, including Reardon’s calls with his campaign consultants.
“The total amount of time used equated to 50 hours and 20 minutes of usage by Reardon on his Snohomish County cellphone for campaign purposes,” investigators found.
Reardon’s campaign-related phone calls pushed his county phone plan over its allotted minutes. Taxpayers were charged an extra $141.25, according to commission documents.
Investigators found Hulten worked on Reardon’s re-election campaign and was protected at work by the executive. He allegedly used his county-issued laptop and desktop computers, telephone and email address to help Reardon during the 2011 election against Hope. For example, Hulten made three separate calls about political activities to PDC staff from the county executive’s office. In those calls, Hulten lied about who he was, using his brother’s name.
Hulten also made six calls from his work phone during normal work hours to Reardon’s political fundraiser, Colby Underwood, investigators found. Staff also turned up opposition research about Hope on a cloud-based Dropbox account belonging to Hulten and Jon Rudicil, who is Hobbs’ brother-in-law and was another Reardon aide. The Dropbox included background investigations Hulten ran against Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe, County Councilman Brian Sullivan, former deputy executive Gary Weikel and Herald reporter Scott North.
Hulten also is accused of conducting opposition research at work in support of Tacoma attorney Jack Connelly’s 2012 campaign against state Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, who won the election. Documents in the Dropbox account show billing statements to Connelly’s political consultant from Hulten and Rudicil’s company, which they called Thomas and French, LLC.
Investigators also confirmed, through examination of metadata, that Hulten wrote a memo 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.
PDC staff repeatedly attempted to interview Hulten. Close to five months were eaten up while he didn’t respond to subpoenas.
They did receive an email from him in which he denied any violations and said that his campaign work was all done on his own time.
Hulten and Reardon did not immediately respond to requests for comment about Thursday’s charges.
Reardon resigned in 2013 after The Herald exposed Hulten’s misconduct during and after the 2011 election.
Throughout 2012, the junior aide targeted elected officials and county government employees with a barrage of public records requests and attacks on social media. Hulten used the name “Edmond Thomas” and other pseudonyms while claiming to represent an organization with connections to France, called Rue Des Blancs-Manteaux LLC.
Roe requested an outside police investigation to determine whether Hulten broke any laws by harassing employees, and even the spouses, of anyone who had clashed with Reardon.
A King County Major Crimes detective was assigned to the case. An examination of computers and phones Hulten used for his county job linked him the activities described in the Herald stories and more.
What ended up getting Hulten in legal trouble was trying to cover his tracks. When county tech workers showed up at his house to collect computers for the police investigation, he used a data-wiping program to scrub evidence from a county laptop.
He resigned from his county job after nude photos of him and pornography were found on one of laptops the county had given him to use for work.
As part of a deal with prosecutors, Hulten admitted in 2014 to wiping the contents of another laptop. He pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence during a criminal investigation, a gross misdemeanor. He paid a $1,500 fine and spent five days on a Skagit County work crew.
Precisely what penalties Reardon and Hulten may now face will become clearer when their cases reach the five-member citizen commission in early 2016. A hearing date has not been scheduled.
Commissioners also could decide that the totality of the actions by Reardon and Hulten were egregious enough to ask Attorney General Bob Ferguson to get involved. Ferguson could pursue civil prosecution that might result in even greater penalties.
That’s the path commissioners took in September when they asked Ferguson to investigate initiative promoter Tim Eyman’s handling of campaign funds in 2012.
Another possibility is Reardon, Hulten or both will try to reach a settlement with commission staff prior to any public meeting. If that occurs, then the commission would consider accepting or rejecting such a deal, Anderson explained