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Panel weighs in on ethics claims

Libel, electioneering claims without basis

County Commissioner Al French had already lost a libel complaint against former Commissioner Bonnie Mager when she leveled the same charge against him this week.

The state Public Disclosure Commission announced Jan. 3 that neither Mager nor the Eastern Washington Voters political action committee libeled French in last year’s general election campaign.

In another ruling stemming from last year’s Spokane County elections, the PDC found no fault in Auditor Vicky Dalton’s placement of her name in return addresses on ballot envelopes.

Critics argued that amounted to electioneering in a vote-by-mail election, but Charles Skirko Jr.’s complaint was based on state laws prohibiting use of public resources by public officials.

Because it’s legal for public officials to put their names on envelopes, only a departure from past practice would have constituted a campaign violation, the disclosure commission stated. The commission found Dalton had routinely included her name in return addresses.

In two other rulings, the commission said there was nothing wrong with Michael Baumgartner’s financial reporting in his successful state Senate campaign, and French’s financial reporting problems didn’t warrant discipline.

French complained to the PDC on Nov. 8 that Mager and Eastern Washington Voters libeled him when the committee distributed fliers stating French was “involved in” illegal dredging of the Spokane River at Post Falls in May 2004.

The commission found no fault with the fliers and no evidence that Mager had anything to do with them.

An architect, French acted as businessman Tom Hamilton’s agent in seeking permission to dredge the river. But Hamilton said he alone was responsible for the deliberate violation.

Washington law requires French to prove Eastern Washington Voters or Mager made a false and libelous statement with “reckless disregard” for accuracy.

Given that standard, there was no basis to pursue a libel claim, according to Doug Ellis, interim director of the Public Disclosure Commission.

“The facts related (in newspaper articles), including statements attributed to you, appear to provide a basis for the limited claim that you were ‘involved’ in the dredging activity if not primarily responsible for it,” Ellis wrote.

He said the facts seemed to support campaign statements that French was caught “faking” newspaper letters to the editor and that Hamilton had been a “big donor” to French.

French said he thought the disclosure commission didn’t have “a full understanding” of the issues, but he is “letting it go.”

He had alleged that Mager was involved in the Eastern Washington Voters advertising, but Ellis said French provided no evidence.

Mager made a similarly unsupported allegation this week that French was responsible for a barrage of anonymous and inaccurate e-mails.

Mager made numerous allegations, including charges that French falsely listed 11 people as supporters. However, Mager focused on anonymous e-mails that took aim at a farm property tax deferral that shaved $1,050 from her 2010 tax bill.

Mager blamed French for the e-mails, but French said he didn’t know who sent them.


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