The state election watchdog on Tuesday fined a powerful builders’ group and its affiliates $6,250 for campaign finance violations from the November 1996 elections.
The Public Disclosure Commission levied the fines against the Building Industry Association of Washington, a nonprofit trade group, and a handful of political committees.
The committees are considered independent but relied on the BIAW for funding, staff, office space and other resources. Several became inactive after the 1996 elections.
The commission found that the groups exceeded contribution limits to candidates, filed inaccurate registration forms and submitted late finance reports after the elections.
The violations were not intentional, said Kim O’Neal, an assistant attorney general who has worked on the case for the PDC.
“It was an inadvertent failure to communicate” between the BIAW and the smaller groups, she said.
The fines followed a complaint filed last July by the Washington State Labor Council and several legislators who complained of negative “hit pieces” that were mailed to voters late in the campaign.
The BIAW itself was fined only $500, for failing to report in-kind contributions to the committees, but the fines add up to one of the stiffest penalties ever enforced by the PDC, labor council president Rick Bender said.
“The BIAW is finally being brought to justice for playing fast and loose with our election laws and the public’s right to know who’s paying for this last-minute political mail,” Bender said in a statement.
BIAW director Tom McCabe downplayed the fines and said the builders’ group did not set out to violate campaign laws.
“None of it was intentional, but we have agreed to settle this case for what we believe to be a very minor amount of money because litigating the case would have cost a considerable amount more,” he said.
McCabe called the smaller committees “separate organizations run separately from our office,” but he said the BIAW will pay all of the fines.
The labor council failed to persuade the elections group that the BIAW’s Member Services Corporation is an unregistered political committee.
The internal corporation provides services such as workers’ compensation and health insurance to BIAW members. It also has spent at least $560,000 for political purposes since 1995.
But making political contributions is not the corporation’s primary purpose, the PDC ruled in October. Elections officials noted at the time that the $360,000 spent on politics in 1996 represented less than 13 percent of the corporation’s $2.9 million in total expenditures.