Three years after a business-backed group called the "Voters Education Committee," ran TV ads blasting then-candidate Deborah Senn's run for attorney general, the state's highest court ruled this morning that Washington's campaign watchdog was within it's rights to order the committee to disclose its donors.
"As Insurance Commissioner, Senn suspended most of a $700,000 fine against an insurance company...in exchange for the company's agreement to pay for four new staff members in Senn's own office. Senn even tried to cover up the deal from state legislators..."
the ad said, over an image of money and years-old headlines about the case.
Such a direct attack is not simple -- and less-regulated -- "issue advocacy," Washington's Public Disclosure Commission ruled. It ordered the Voters Education Committee to name it's contributors. The group refused, saying that the ads were not "express advocacy," but more of a general statement about issues.
But the state Supreme Court never made it to that interesting, if muddy, issue. Instead, the court ruled 7-2 this morning that the committee was, in fact, a PAC. As such, it should report its contributions and spending in Washington races.
Justices Jim Johnson and Richard Sanders dissented, saying that the court is nontheless is treading on dangerous ground:
If a government entity like the Public Disclosure Commission has the power to regulate political speech through content analysis, the state can stifly attempts to speak truth to power," Johnson wrote. "I cannot endorse government speech sentinels claiming power to divine a speaker's intent."
Johnson took particular exception to the PDC's conclusion that the ad -- which he described as largely citing old newspaper stories -- "malign"ed Senn. That "subjective" label by PDC staff, he felt, unfairly led the commission to rule that the Voters Education Committee was a PAC.