March 11, 1998 in Nation/World

Police Probe West’s Threat To Lobbyist Don’t Take Death Threat Literally, Says Senator

Craig Welch And Jim Camden S Staff writer

With three days left in the legislative session, Sen. Jim West scrambled Tuesday to negotiate budget changes, mediate a fierce campaign finance debate and downplay accusations he had threatened to kill a lobbyist.

The Spokane Republican was trapped on center stage, trying to explain the ominous message he left last Friday night on the answering machine of Tom McCabe, executive director of the Building Industries Association of Washington.

“McCabe, you son of a bitch, you better get me, ‘cause if you don’t, you’re dead,” the message said.

McCabe filed a complaint Saturday with Olympia police, who took it seriously enough to visit West on Monday and read him his rights.

A spokeswoman for the Olympia Police Department said the incident still is being investigated and has not been referred to the city prosecutor. There’s no estimate on when the investigation will be completed.

Making an intimidating phone call is a gross misdemeanor, said spokeswoman Cathie Butler. It carries a possible penalty of up to a year in jail and a $500 fine.

West said the threat referred to political - not physical - death.

“Taken out of context, it would appear that I was acting in an emotional manner,” West said. “But this is the Legislature. Bills die. We sine die. We don’t kill people.”

West said he made the phone call after seeing a pair of advertisements the building association ran last week in The Spokesman-Review. He said he was hurt and angry that a group whose positions he typically supports singled him out for criticism in his hometown newspaper.

McCabe “attacks me politically, I respond, and all of a sudden I’m under police investigation? It’s ridiculous,” West said Tuesday. “My friends took a political shot at me, I took a political shot back. McCabe has escalated this to a political war.”

The building association insisted that it was West who overreacted. Although the veteran senator said he would not accept association contributions in the future, BIAW officials were saying they still hoped to work with the Spokane Republican. They expressed surprise at his vehemence.

“We felt the ad was not hard-hitting,” said association spokeswoman Erin Shannon. “We felt he would take this as part of the political game.”

McCabe told several reporters that he had wanted the police report to be kept confidential to avoid embarrassing West.

“Tom told police, ‘If I’m being paranoid or wimpy here, please let me know,”’ Shannon said. “They urged him to file the complaint.”

The Olympia police report makes no note of McCabe’s request. But Butler, the city spokeswoman, acknowledged that such complaints are often kept confidential and this report was released by mistake.

West’s explanation for using the word “dead” did nothing to sway BIAW officials, who maintained that McCabe was concerned for the safety of his family.

“The issue here is you do not call people and threaten them with death - even if it’s rhetorical,” Shannon said. “It’s unacceptable behavior. It’s illegal.”

Over the years, the association and its political action committees have been strong financial supporters of West’s campaigns. The Affordable Housing Council, an industry PAC, gave him $1,100 for his unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor, and the association’s political director, Elliot Swaney, gave West $100.

Building industry committees also gave him $1,500 for his 1994 Senate re-election campaign.

Some contributions can’t be measured in dollars.

“I helped build 750 yard signs for him when he ran for lieutenant governor,” said Suzanne Knapp, government affairs director of the Spokane Home Builders Association, the local affiliate of the BIAW.

Knapp was one of the targets of West’s anger Friday, even though she had nothing to do with the ad.

“Are you stupid?” West demanded of Knapp in an e-mail he sent from his legislative Internet address. “Don’t ever come to me for anything again.”

The thing is, Knapp said Tuesday, she can’t remember ever going to West with a request.

West also left a phone message for Al Haslebacher, the Spokane association’s executive director: “Al, are you the stupidest man in the world, or do you just work for the stupidest man in the world?”

At the center of the squabble are two bills that would have allowed school districts to discontinue impact fees paid on new homes and instead choose to receive a portion of the real estate excise tax paid on all property sales. Last week, one of the bills was in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which West chairs.

The bill died in that committee, while its counterpart died in the House.

The newspaper ad chastises West for not “supporting our children,” but it doesn’t mention that the measure would cost the state’s general fund up to $70 million a biennium and save the building industry $20 million or more a year, West said.

The industry argues that it’s fairer for all property owners to pay for schools through the excise tax than for new home buyers, who are the only ones who face the impact fees passed on by builders.

While GOP lawmakers scoffed at the idea that West’s threat should be taken seriously, Democratic leaders pounced on it as the latest example of an increasingly hostile capitol environment.

“There’s just a lot more intimidation around here, period,” said House Minority Leader Marlin Applewick, D-Seattle. “I’m not aware of anyone who’s ever made that kind of statement, especially on tape.”

West said he only regrets one part of the episode. Asked whether he would do it again, he said he instead would corner McCabe and talk to him in person. “I wouldn’t leave the message on his answering machine.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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