Saturday, March 15, 2008

Why Good People Violate Campaign Laws and Why Good People file Campaign-Related Complaints

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Dan Pike, Bellingham Mayor elect and Brett Bonner, KGMI morning talk show host, friend and Pike campaign supporter, called Britt’s Public Disclosure Commission Complaint against Pike "a dirty McShane campaign tactic,” and publicly announced to all of Whatcom County that “Dan Pike’s finance records are clean.”

Sam Taylor, The Bellingham Herald Government Reporter, printed a copy of an internal PDC e-mail leaked by Dan Pike announcing that Elisabeth Britt’s complaint would be dismissed by the PDC. A few days later, Britt receives a letter from the PDC announcing that the PDC is opening a formal investigation of the complaint, despite Dan Pike and the media’s claims to the contrary.

Meanwhile, thousands of voters are casting their ballots for Mayor, based on erroneous information circulated by the candidate, the media and local blogs.

This is the fourth campaign-related complaint Britt has filed in twenty years and the second complaint she filed during the 2007 campaign season. When asked why she filed the complaints, she answers, "because there is a clear, repetitive pattern of violations in the Bornemann and Pike filings."

Despite allegations by the media, Britt was not a member of the McShane Campaign Team nor was she pictured with the rest of the team on the McShane website. She did donate funds to the McShane campaign and donated a vegetable tray for a fundraiser at a local art gallery. She also doorbelled for Conservation Voters, a nonpartisan organization that had endorsed Terry Bornemann, an incumbent City Councilor.

For those readers who do not listen to local talk radio, Brett Bonner spent the better part of three weeks trash talking individuals who file campaign-related complaints; as if the individuals filing the complaints are the ones breaking the law. He wrote and posted a nasty e-mail attacking Elisabeth Britt, the woman who filed the complaint, on his blogs. He accused her publicly of violating federal public disclosure law while acting as treasurer for a local initiative in 2005, without providing any documentation to support his allegations. In other words, he went way out of his way to vilify Britt, a former legislative aide and long time community activist, in order to humiliate, shame and embarass her for filing a complaint.

During the media frenzy, Britt’s car was destroyed under mysterious circumstances and her family received nightly visits from vandals who destroyed campaign signs, overturned and stomped container garden plants and repeatedly vandalized lawn furniture, gardening tools and the family barbeque. the nightly visits lasted three weeks. The barbeque and outdoor fireplace are destroyed and the broken frames are still visible in the yard. The harassment and vandalism did not stop until she wrote the PDC and the media to formally withdraw her complaint. The PDC, after thoughtful deliberation, refused to pull the complaint and that announcement put an end to the nights of terror. Britt is a single mom. One can only imagine how frightened she was.

Britt also received threatening phone calls and was routinely attacked on The Bellingham Herald and KGMI Blogs for filing a complaint against Dan Pike. The complaint filed against Bornemann was all but forgotten as she was repeatedly accused of launching a personal vendetta against Dan Pike and only Dan Pike. The Bornemann complaint alleges that Bornemann filed 95% of his PDC reports late and includes a spreadsheet documenting the late reports.

Who is the criminal here? The candidate who committed the alleged illegal offenses or the individual who filed the complaint?

Currently, there are three formal complaints against Pike being investigated by the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission (PDC). The first was filed by Elisabeth Britt in October of 2007, the second, by Professor Todd Donovan, a WWU political science professor, was filed in November of 2007. In response to Donovan's complaint, the PDC opened a third formal investigation against the Washington Realtors for not reporting campaign expenditures on behalf of Dan Pike and other local candidates.

Last week, the PDC was in town interviewing Pike, Whatcom County Council member Sam Crawford and Larry Farr, a former candidate for Bellingham City Council regarding campaign expenditures made on their behalf by the Realtor's association. Only Farr reported the in-kind expenditure.

A fourth complaint by a third individual is currently under consideration by the PDC. In addition to the PDC complaints, two or more complaints have been filed at the federal level. One complaint, filed by Todd Donovan, alleges that Pike received and deposited campaign funds from foreign nationals. A second federal complaint has been filed under the state and local employees Hatch Act, alleging that Dan Pike was a covered employee while working as the Transportation Director for Skagit Council of Governments. The individual who filed the Hatch Act complaint asked to remain anonymous until the complaint is processed.

If the Hatch Act allegations are true, Pike’s campaign would have been illegal from June 13, 2007 on. Why? He sought and received the endorsement of the Democratic Party, a big no no according to the Hatch Act. What's the big deal about endorsements? The Hatch Act was adopted to protect citizens from political exploitation. Congress wanted to ensure that everyone, regardless of political affiliation, would receive the same level of service, without any political strings attached. The law applies to all federal employees and a number of local and state entities that receive federal grants and loans to fund programs.

The Hatch Act has been around since 1939 and I would be surprised to hear Pike claim that he didn't know about the law, since, as Transportation Director, he routinely monitored consultant contracts that contained strong language prohibiting any political activity by consultants employed by SCOG.

How far should a candidate go to win an election?

The news that Dan Pike may have hidden up to 54% of his expenditures comes as no surprise to me – not because Dan Pike is a bad person, but because there is little appreciation for, or thought given to the reasons why we have campaign reporting laws. Hence, citizens, like Britt and Donovan, who file complaints are vilified by the media, the public and the angry, self-righteous candidate. There are similar stories published daily across America. Angry candidates - vilified citizens.

Campaign finance laws are often viewed the same way that speed limit laws are viewed. If no one’s looking, what’s the harm in driving five or ten miles over the speed limit? If a traffic cop writes us a ticket, we go home and complain to family members that we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In light of Bellingham voter’s strong distrust of developers and realtors, I’m skeptical of Dan Pike’s story that he did not report the swanky fundraisers at the Bellwether Hotel because he had not been invoiced for the events. The political two-step financing shuffle that took place during the weeks following the filing of Britt’s complaint reveal several inconsistencies in Mr. Pike’s statement’s to the media about who paid for what; vs. what was actually reported in the PDC filings.

Which raises an interesting question: if a candidate can not file accurate reports, (if it was just too difficult) then perhaps it is safe for the public to assume that the candidate is an intellectual light weight and is not qualified to assume a position of responsibility that includes administering departments and complex budgets. After all, all but one of the other candidates managed to file accurate and timely reports. And, many of those candidates were first timers in the campaign world.

That said, Dan Pike appears to be a nice person who cares about Bellingham and has indicated that he would like to work hard on the community’s behalf. But, when good people miss the purpose of campaign finance laws and vilify individuals who file campaign-related complaints, we have a much larger social problem.

Campaign reporting laws exist because the public wants to know who is supporting candidates and ballot petitions. The Public Disclosure Commission is one of a handful of state agencies that was created by the will of the people through the adoption of Initiative 172 in 1972. It is a citizen driven process. The agency depends on citizens to file complaints to ensure that campaigns are open and transparent. In my opinion, too many politicians do not respect the fact that the people are the true source of power in this nation. We have a long standing tradition in this country, government by the people, for the people. Unfortunately, too many politicians withhold information and manipulate citizens to achieve their own agendas, which may or may not be in the best interests of the people they seek to represent.

But I’m not so sure this is what happened in Pike’s case. It appears that he thought he was clever enough to pull off the finance reporting maneuvers and outwit his opponent, Dan McShane; who, let's face it, never stood a chance in the final weeks of the election, because he was still playing by the rules.

Again, this appears to be a symptom of a larger cultural problem. Candidates from both sides of the isle are so focused on winning elections, they break campaign laws without feeling any remorse for the behavior. After all, all’s fair in love, war and politics.

The author of this post has asked to remain anonymous - High School Students and WWU Students are welcome to post on this site as long as they abide by Latte Republic rules.

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