Government watchdogs want state Senate Republicans to return all the campaign money illegally raised during the 1995 legislative session.
In a letter to the state Public Disclosure Commission last week, the Senate Republican Campaign Committee offered to settle the case by repaying $35,310 to contributors, or roughly half the money raised.
The committee has already spent the rest of the $70,000, said Sen. Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue.
“I don’t know how you’d pay back the rest,” said McDonald, chairman of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, and a likely candidate for governor in 1996.
“This is a fair offer.”
Hardly, some activists say.
“They should pay it all back. If it was illegal it was illegal,” said Karen Verrill, president of the League of Women Voters of Washington.
The PDC ruled that all the money was raised in violation of a 1992 initiative approved by voters that banned fundraising during the session.
A Thurston County Superior Court judge agreed last month that the initiative applies to money-raising by the Legislature’s caucuses.
Accepting the GOP’s offer “would be a giant step backward to the bad old days when the PDC was doing the bidding of the politicians,” said Shawn Newman, co-chairman of CLEAN, a citizen’s watchdog group.
Newman and other activists were critical of the PDC’s handling of an earlier scandal, in which the four legislative caucuses were caught campaigning on the public’s dime.
No individual lawmakers were found in violation of the law, but fines were imposed.
This time they are hoping the PDC will come down hard.
“They have to avoid the appearance of weakness and illustrate the PDC does have teeth,” Newman said. “You have a blatant violation and the court has agreed. They should seek out full restitution.
“Anything else would be like robbing a bank and saying ‘Oh, I already spent most of it, but I’ll just give you back what I’ve got lying around.”’
The PDC will meet in two weeks to consider what punishment to levy against the GOP campaign committee.
Paul Doumit, attorney for the committee, said if the PDC doesn’t go along with the GOP’s offer to give the rest of the money back, it may appeal the court’s ruling.
“It’s still an option.”
Sen. James West, R-Spokane, chairman of the Senate GOP’s finance committee during the session, said he still thinks the PDC and the court is wrong.
But there is dissent in the ranks. Some Republicans criticize West’s advice to keep raising money during the session despite the PDC warning in January that it couldn’t.
“This is the brains of Jim West,” said Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, a candidate for governor in 1996. “I didn’t think it was right, and it looks terrible. It’s a no-win situation. And the in-your-face attitude certainly doesn’t help. It’s a public embarrassment.”
West called Roach a “nit-picker” and worse. “She’s a…royal pain and has been since the day she was elected.”
Newman saw irony in Senate Republicans, of all people, arguing about the campaign finance law, which they wrote.
“This thing was written in their kitchen and now they’re acting like they don’t know what it says,” he said.
None of the other three caucuses raised money after the PDC warned in a January letter that fund-raising was banned during the session.
The PDC allowed fund-raising during the 1993 and 1994 sessions, even though Initiative 134 was already on the books.
But it made no bones about enforcing the restriction in 1995.
McDonald said the PDC was wrong to change the way the law was enforced without going through the rule-making process.
“We went along for two years with the full blessing of the PDC,” he said. “Then they turned 180 degrees around. We said we didn’t think that was right.”
The campaign committee stuck by its position in part as a matter of principle, West said.
“If it was just me, I’d appeal this to the highest court. But now it’s kind of a who’s the biggest bully situation. We’ll give the PDC this one.
“We just want to put it behind us.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.