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State sues to uncover ad backers

OLYMPIA – The state attorney general’s office will go to court this morning to try to force a secretive political group to reveal who’s paying for hundreds of thousands of dollars in TV ads attacking Democratic political candidate Deborah Senn.

The group, the Voters Education Committee, refused to meet a noon deadline Thursday to turn over the information to the state’s campaign-finance watchdog, the Public Disclosure Commission.

“I guess if we’re going to have to use a 2-by-4 on them, that’s what we’ll have to do,” said PDC Commissioner Earl Tilly of Wenatchee.

State lawyers will ask a judge to force the Voters Education Committee to reveal its donors and spending by 9 a.m. Sunday, two days before the primary election.

“I think the real remedy will come next Tuesday, when the voters will have their say in this matter,” said Senn’s husband and campaign spokesman, Rudi Bertschi. He called the ads “an anonymous smear campaign.” Senn is running for attorney general against fellow Democrat Mark Sidran and Republicans Mike Vaska and Rob McKenna.

The ads, which started Friday and are running statewide, cite a controversial decision Senn made during her two-term stint as state insurance commissioner. In 1997, she suspended most of a $700,000 fine against Prudential Insurance in exchange for the company’s agreement to pay the salaries, benefits and travel expenses of four new employees for Senn’s office.

Lawmakers, particularly Senate budget chairman Jim West – now Spokane’s mayor – blasted the deal, calling it an end-run around the state’s budget process. Senn defended it, saying the four staffers were being hired to oversee Prudential.

“Who is Deborah Senn looking out for?” asks the TV ad, detailing the controversy. “Deborah Senn let us down.” It steers viewers to a Web site, www.senninsurancecrisis.com, that criticizes Senn’s actions in office.

It’s unclear how much the Voters Education Committee is spending on the ads, which are running in Spokane, Seattle, Tacoma and Yakima. The PDC said that checks with just three Puget Sound TV stations showed spending of $365,000. Senn believes the ad blitz is costing close to $1 million statewide.

It’s also unclear just who the Voters Education Committee is. Paperwork the group filed with the federal Internal Revenue Service lists two people: Bruce Boram and Valerie Huntsberry. Both work for United for Washington, a business-backed political group.

“If you look at the named agent in this matter, Bruce Boram, he’s a bit like the Jeff Gillooly of the Republican Party,” said Bertschi, referring to the man who clubbed a figure-skater’s knee before the 1994 Olympics trials. “He’s the guy that’s going to leap out of the shadows and bash the knees of your candidate with a lead pipe so that she doesn’t perform as well as she might, and so that his guy stands a better chance of winning in November.”

Boram, reached at his office, declined to respond.

“How literary,” he said. “I’m speechless.”

At an emergency PDC hearing Thursday, an attorney for the Voters Education Committee maintained that the ad is an issues ad, rather than “express advocacy” urging voters not to pick Senn.

“It (the Voters Education Committee) does not believe that its advertisement attacks Deborah Senn’s character,” said the group’s attorney, John White. “The focus is on actions taken in her official capacity, not on Ms. Senn as an individual.”

Therefore, he said, the group feels it doesn’t have to register its activity with the Public Disclosure Commission. The group did register as a “527” political group with the Internal Revenue Service, but under the looser federal rules, won’t have to report donors or spending until mid-October.

The PDC, however, felt that the ads are intended to deter people from voting for Senn. Because of that, the PDC ruled, the donations and spending for the ads should have been reported to the state.

“My view of it is that the ad clearly is an attack on the character of the candidate,” said PDC chairman Mike Connelly, who is also Spokane’s city attorney. The group unanimously agreed that the Voters Education Committee “apparently” violated state campaign-finance laws. Since the PDC can levy a maximum fine of only $2,500, it asked the attorney general’s office to step in and file a suit against the Voters Education Committee. The goal is to force the group to reveal its donors in time for voters to consider that information.

“Given the time constraints, every day counts,” said PDC commissioner Jane Noland.



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