Monday, May 19, 2008

It's Time to Clean House at the PDC

On November 16, 2007, Todd Donovan filed a complaint with the PDC alleging that Pike’s Realtor mailings qualified as in-kind contributions as opposed to independent expenditures.

Donvoan's complaint states that the mailers appear to have been carefully coordinated with the Pike campaign based on strong similarities with regards to graphics, colors, logos, and themes. The Realtor’s pieces also appear to lack the proper sponsor identification wording specifically required for independent expenditures.

A May 15th PDC staff report states that the Realtor’s Quality of Life PAC spent $46,650.47 for seven district mailers that were in-kind contributions supporting Crawford ($12,874.60), Pike ($19,038.23), and Farr, ($14,737.64). Only Larry Farr reported the in-kind contributions, as directed by the Realtors. (Let’s give a gold star to Larry Farr for honesty and integrity - he reported the in-kind donation promptly).

Candidate’s Crawford and Pike did not report receiving in-kind contributions in the amount of $12,874 and $19,038.23 respectively. Both the Crawford and Pike campaigns said they believed the mailings to be independent expenditures and therefore have not reported receiving any in-kind contributions for RQL PAC.

Phil Stutzman’s staff report to the Commission recommends that the Commission dismiss the allegations against Dan Pike. Stutzman feels dismissal is appropriate because the Pike campaign attempted to avoid coordinating its activities with the Realtors and believed it’s the expenditures to be independent expenditures, based on conversations with PDC employees.

Mr. Crawford reports a similar experience with the PDC.

I find it deeply troubling that a Washington State Public Disclosure Commission employee mislead candidates into thinking in-kind contributions are not – in fact – in-kind contributions.

After all, the Public Disclosure Commission is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that Washington Candidates and political organizations obey Washington’s campaign finance laws.

I’m not a suspicious person by nature, but I must admit, now that I have had an opportunity to review the Stutzman report, I question the PDCs impartiality in the Pike Campaign.

Why? I get that yucky, sinking feeling everytime I read the series of e-mail exchanged between Dan Pike, Pike’s campaign treasurer, Ken Bronstein, and Randy Unruh, the PDC Political Finance Specialist for the Pike and McShane Campaigns.

In an e-mail dated July 19, 2007, Unruh writes Dan Pike to inform him that he has been assigned to monitor his campaign, and hopefully keep on top of any problems before they turn into complaints. His e-mail reads, “I have been assigned to monitor the candidates running for Mayor of Bellingham. I have reviewed your reports that have been submitted to the PDC. Below is a list of errors that need to be addressed immediately”. Unruh closes the e-mail with a warning to Mr. Pike –“You are in a hotly contested race and I am sure your financing will be looked at. If someone were to complain prior to you correcting these errors it may lead to an investigation and possible enforcement, which we are trying to avoid.”

O.k. I understand and appreciate that the PDC needs to be involved in monitoring campaign activity - so the above statement doesn't raise any red flags - but, on October 31, 2007, Unruh sent an e-mail to Ken Bronstein. “The PDC has received a formal complaint from Elisabeth Britt concerning the Dan Pike Campaign. The Complaint is in a fact finding phase and may not be logged in. I have been able to dispel most of the complaint, but need some information on the remainder. Ms. Britt states that the Pike Campaign has three fundraising events recently:
September 18, 2007 – at the Bellwether Hotel
September 29, 2007 – at the American Museum of Radio
October 3, 2007 – This was “hosted by Developers”

I have found expenses for room rental for the musician and for Food and Beverages from the Harborside Bistro, and in-kind contributions of food, catering and Radio Museum room rental.
Where is the information on the Bellwether Hotel (Expenses or In-kind contributions) and the fundraiser hosted by the developers (room, food, in-kind expenses)? Can you designate which of the recorded in-kind contributions and the expenses is for what fundraiser

I need a written explanation now, and then we can decide how to record what is determined.”

The above correspondence raises a question regarding the PDCs neutrality in regulating campaigns. First, Unruh warns the candidate that he has significant errors that need to be addressed or it is likely a complaint will be filed. Then, when a complaint is filed, Unruh writes that he is doing everything in his power to dispel the complaint, even though he can not find the information he needs to dismiss it... then, out of the blue, he announces he is preparing a "will not investigate memo now." without fully investigating the complaint. Pike leaks the e-mail to the media, claiming that the PDC has told him investiation into funds is over -but nothing could have been further from the truth.

Pike's alleged state and federal campaign violations raise a number of questions that no one wants to address: For instance, how do we measure the negative impact of a large infusion of illegal campaign funds on the outcome of an election? Should an investigation be opened to determine if the illegal donations resulted in a skewed election? What steps should the PDC take when a candidate calls the office to reveal that significant amounts of cash are about to be spent by a PAC during the last 21 days of an election? Should the PDC employee in question have notified his superiors so they could investigate the alleged in-kind contributions and issue a stop order to prevent the Realtors from sending out mailers that violated the $5000 dollar limit during the final 21 days before the general election?

What recourse do law abiding citizens and candidates have under these circumstances? Does any one care if elections are fair?

Do candidates have an obligation to verify information with a supporter? Does the PDC? Or, do we rely on private citizens, like Todd Donovan to report alleged violations?

Pike’s PDC reports only list $700 in contributions from the Realtors, when in reality Pike received $19, 038 in-kind donations from the realtors and an undisclosed amount in additional Independent Expenditures from the Realtors for additional support.

According to Pike’s C-4 from October 30, 2007, the Pike campaign had only raised $46,833.24. Therefore it is not a stretch for me to state that a last minute infusion of $20,000 (approximately $14,o38 after subtracting the $5,000 limit) plus dollars into the campaign provided Mr. Pike a significant illegal advantage over his opponent.

Sam Crawford reported raising $20,458.24 in his October 30, 2007 C-4. So an additional $12,874 ($7,874 after subtracting the $5,000 limit) probably gave Mr. Crawford an illegal advantage over his opponent as well. The Realtors also paid for T.V. ads for Mr. Crawford.

Clearly, organizations like the Realtors think that they are buying something when they make huge cash donations to candidates – which leads me to ask, what exactly is for sale? What is it that PACs demand and politicians like Crawford and Pike supply? After all, identifying the “product” in the political marketplace is the first step in making informed decisions. (I can understand why the Whatcom County Realtors would be involved, but why the state chapter)?

You may not personally like Dan McShane or Ken Mann, but when did not liking someone justify breaking the law to win an election? Tell me, at the end of the day, who is responsible for illegal campaign spending? The candidate, the donor, or the PDC Officer who allegedly gave the candidate and/or his staff erroneous legal advice? (How about all of the above).

If Dan Pike’s past behavior is any indication of his future behavior, he will finger point, stomp around in another self-important huff and blame everyone else for his campaign troubles. Too bad Bret Bonner isn’t around to rant and rave about how his good friend Dan Pike is being railroaded by bitter, angry McShane supporters...

As an incumbent, Whatcom County Council member Sam Crawford should have known better and had nothing to lose by reporting the Realtor's in-kind donations. Most Crawford supporters expect that Crawford receives significant Realtor support. All he had to do is ask the Realtors to provide him a copy of the mailer - that would have answered any questions he or his campaign staff had regarding the donation (in-kind or Independent Expenditure)?

Me? I think it’s time to clean house at the Public Disclosure Commission. Political Finance Officers have an obligation to provide accurate, timely information to candidates. Especially beginner candidates. If an employee provides erroneous information, he/she should be held accountable. Especially when large sums of money are involved and the outcome of an election is at stake.

In closing, I would like to urge the legislature to draft legislation that allows the Attorney General to remove elected officials from office when campaign violations become so pronounced that they have the ability to adversely affect the outcome of an election. Of course, the legislature will never draft that legislation, so it will be up to the citizens to write an initiative if they want to ensure that elections are in fact, open, honest and transparent.

If we don’t take steps to address the problem, Washington voters will be left at the mercy of PACs flush with cash who find it more expedient to pay court-ordered fines than obey the campaign finance laws of this state.

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