Election Watchdog Called Slow, Toothless Commission Often Doesn’t Act On Complaints Until After Election Day
When impoverished Washington tribes kicked hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign for I-651, some people wondered where they got the money. And they figured they could trust the Public Disclosure Commission to find out.
Created by citizen initiative in 1972, the commission was charged with shining light on campaign spending, conflicts of interest and lobbying.
Nearly 25 years later, some question how well the PDC is doing as the state’s front-line election cop.
Critics say it’s too slow on complaints, often not reaching decisions until after Election Day, when its findings matter less, if at all.
Of 42 election complaints filed since July, only six have been resolved, PDC records show.
“Delay is a real problem,” said Peter Knutson, who filed complaints about reporting violations. “Someone can play dirty politics and benefit from it and not have to deal with it until after the election. It’s like paying a traffic ticket.”
In the case of I-651, the tribal gambling initiative, voters went to the polls without an answer to allegations of fraud raised in a complaint to the PDC that’s been cooking since July.
Tribes strongly deny any wrongdoing, but had to carry the allegations like a millstone throughout the campaign.
The election is over, the initiative lost, and action on the complaint is still pending, with no outcome expected until early next year.
Commissioners won’t comment on I-651, because it is still under investigation.
But by all accounts, the PDC is struggling with a new, more high profile regulatory role pushed upon it by the passage of I-134, a campaign finance reform initiative approved by voters in 1992.
The commission is used to acting more as an educator and coach, helping campaigns follow the rules, and serving as a repository of records.
“Education is more comfortable because it removes the element of confrontation,” said Jim Whiteside of Yakima, commission chairman. “But like it or not, we are in a regulatory role now.”
Some complain about both the pace and quality of the PDC’s work.
“When I went into the PDC there seemed to be different levels of interest and disinterest,” said Hank Adams of Olympia, who filed the complaint against I-651. “I think it’s been mishandled.”
Internal documents show investigators pursued the case in part by putting questions in writing to tribal leaders of the campaign and allowing them to answer in as many drafts as they like.
Puyallup tribal council member Michael Turnipseed filed three drafts of his answers to PDC questions at last count, until arriving at the version he preferred.
None of the statements was made under oath, and the tribes do not concede the state or PDC even has jurisdiction over their affairs.
“This is not a way to get at the truth,” Adams said.
“They haven’t conducted an investigation worthy of the name. My experience with the PDC doesn’t inspire confidence in either their process or their commitment. The PDC is not doing its job.”
The commission has taken heat for being both too lax and too hard on campaigns. GOP senators are battling the PDC in court right now over a commission finding that they illegally raised campaign money during the last legislative session.
The PDC demanded the senators turn over every dime, which has powerful lawmakers howling.
But the commission has also been criticized for its handling of a 1992 investigation into illegal campaigning, in which the four legislative caucuses were fined, but no lawmakers were fingered for wrongdoing.
One key staffer admitted destroying evidence when the PDC’s investigation was imminent. He lied about it when first questioned by PDC investigators, but can’t be charged with perjury because the PDC investigator neglected to put him under oath.
PDC commissioners will gather for a retreat at an Olympia hotel next month to examine the commission’s role, and its performance. Some commission members themselves point to problems they want fixed.
Fines set by law more than two decades ago are pocket change today.
While the commission is charged with providing ready access to public records, disclosure is hampered by an archaic microfilm system that is difficult and expensive to use.
Even basic consumer services, such as a toll-free number, aren’t available to the public.
By June, the PDC plans to switch to a computerized record filing and retrieval system designed to make records more accessible.
Still to be met is the challenge of 1992’s campaign reform initiative, which imposed a slew of new restrictions that generate more complaints.
With a staff of just six investigators and campaign finance specialists and budget of about $1 million a year, the PDC can’t keep up, said executive director Melissa Warheit.
The workload has steadily increased, with 319 investigations opened in fiscal year 1994; 370 so far this year, and 475 investigations anticipated next year.
“We just plain need more people,” Warheit said.
More often than not, election complaints aren’t decided before voters go to the polls.
Sometimes complex investigations are still under way. In many cases, the complaints arrive too late for the PDC to handle them while observing legal requirements to provide notice and time to respond.
But sometimes, the PDC deliberately puts off resolution until after the election.
During their Oct. 24 meeting, commissioners voted 3-2 to defer action on nearly 200 alleged violations of campaign finance disclosure requirements by the Save Our Sealife campaign, a failed anti-commercial fishing initiative.
One commissioner argued the violations were “as serious as any we consider here,” and deserved immediate action. But PDC vice chairman Don Brazier of Olympia urged his colleagues “not to impact the election,” and “avoid playing politics.”
Because the alleged violations were about reporting requirements, not the substance of the initiative, there was no reason to cloud the upcoming election by deciding the case, Brazier said.
The case was put off for action until December, sparking criticism.
“The PDC’s role is to make rulings and decisions, not worry whether they will influence the outcome of an election. That’s for the voters to decide,” said Commissioner Gary Maehara of Mercer Island, who voted against postponement.
Because the PDC’s fines are so low, topping out at $2,500, public disclosure is the commission’s most potent weapon, said Knutson, a fishing initiative foe. “When they waive things until after the election, they give that power away.”
It’s not the first time.
Last year the PDC determined Seattle public school officials were using public resources to campaign for school levies, but chose not to do anything about it until after the election.
“We found what we thought was an egregious pattern of abuse and they voted not to hear the case, even to consider referring it to the attorney general’s office until after the election.” Warheit said.
“This has been a real change in the philosophy and policy by the commissioners.”
Deferring action on complaints when action is possible is a mistake, said Whiteside, who now regrets his vote to postpone the Save Our Sealife case.
“We have to go ahead, and let the chips fall where they may, and face up to our responsibilities.
“The longer we delay, the longer the public is deprived of information they need in making a decision at the polls.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ABCs OF THE PDC The Public Disclosure Commission: Is a five-member citizen commission, appointed by the governor with confirmation by the Senate. Members are paid $100 per monthly meeting as well as expenses. They serve staggered five-year terms. The PDC also has an 18-member full-time staff, and an approximately $1 million annual budget. The PDC is charged with administering and enforcing the state’s Open Government Act and I-134, a campaign finance reform initiative passed in 1992.
This sidebar appeared with the story: ABCs OF THE PDC The Public Disclosure Commission: Is a five-member citizen commission, appointed by the governor with confirmation by the Senate. Members are paid $100 per monthly meeting as well as expenses. They serve staggered five-year terms. The PDC also has an 18-member full-time staff, and an approximately $1 million annual budget. The PDC is charged with administering and enforcing the state’s Open Government Act and I-134, a campaign finance reform initiative passed in 1992.