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Suits filed against building groups

Attorney general alleges campaign finance abuse

OLYMPIA – Attorney General Rob McKenna took legal action Friday against two builders’ groups accused of breaking state campaign finance laws.

McKenna filed a lawsuit against the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties and a second lawsuit against a subsidiary of the Building Industry Association of Washington.

The action comes just days after the state Public Disclosure Commission agreed unanimously that the two groups failed to properly report their roles in directing political donations.

McKenna’s office found there was sufficient evidence and filed the lawsuits in Thurston County Superior Court. Status conferences before the court in the cases have been scheduled for Dec. 19.

The groups have 30 days to respond.

BIAW spokeswoman Erin Shannon said her group hoped to be able to resolve the matter without going to court.

“We’re happy to cooperate, we look forward to it,” she said. “It will become clear to them that while we may have violated the PDC’s interpretation of a rule, it certainly wasn’t done intentionally or knowingly. We have nothing to hide.”

Former Supreme Court Justices Faith Ireland and Robert Utter complained in July that the Master Builders Association and the BIAW – a conservative, politically active statewide trade group – were not fully disclosing their involvement in political fundraising.

The BIAW has been a target of liberal political groups for years because of its support of conservative candidates and causes. This year, the BIAW’s priority is helping Republican Dino Rossi defeat Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire. Ireland and Utter, who lodged the legal complaint, are Gregoire supporters.

On Monday, PDC investigators dismissed a large part of Ireland and Utter’s complaint: that the BIAW is acting as a political committee, arranging the money flowing from its members and into campaigns.

But the PDC did find evidence that a BIAW subsidiary, Member Services Corp., was improperly concealing its role in bundling about $585,000 in workers’ compensation refunds for donation to the BIAW’s political arm.

“The fact is this money all belongs to 6,000 small employers around the state and they never consented to it being spent on politics for anyone,” said Knoll Lowney, one of the lawyers who brought suit on behalf of Utter and Ireland.

“We’re happy that he took action,” Lowney said. “These are extremely serious campaign violations.”

Another suit in Thurston County seeks to restrict the BIAW’s access to the money it now spends on political campaigns. A hearing in that case is scheduled for Friday, Lowney said.

The PDC also said the King and Snohomish Master Builders received and spent about $412,000 on polls, campaign contributions and political research without reporting the money’s source.

Sam Anderson, the group’s executive officer, said his organization also wants to resolve the problem out of court.

“If we should have had it be a PAC (political action committee), then we’ll create a PAC. If we should have reported the contributors, then we’re happy to report the contributors,” he said.