July 15, 2011 in Region

Judge blocks state limit on recall contributions

Gene Johnson Associated Press

SEATTLE — A federal judge Thursday blocked Washington state from enforcing campaign contribution limits with respect to an effort to recall the Pierce County assessor, a decision critics of the law hailed as the first step toward undoing the limits for all recall campaigns in the state.

Washington bans contributions of more than $800 to recall campaigns, though political parties and their official committees can give more. U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan in Tacoma said that at this point, the state hasn’t demonstrated that it has an important interest that would justify limiting the First Amendment rights of people who want to donate more to the Recall Dale Washam effort in Pierce County.

He issued a preliminary injunction barring the state from imposing those limits on the campaign pending a trial over whether the limit is constitutional.

“Though a close question … the public interest in upholding free speech and association rights outweighs the interest in continued enforcement of these campaign finance provisions,” he wrote.

Washam, the Pierce County assessor-treasurer, is facing a recall campaign that accuses him of dysfunctional management, wasting public resources and retaliating against his own employees. The effort is led by a retired naval officer and political novice named Robin Farris.

Farris has received legal help in navigating the recall process from two local attorneys, who have donated assistance worth more than $20,000. Late last year, the state’s Public Disclosure Commission alleged that those contributions exceeded the $800 limit. Eventually, the commission dropped the charge as part of a settlement, but warned Farris that the free legal help could be counted going forward — a stance that would prevent the lawyers from continuing to work with the campaign.

In addition, several donors have given the maximum $800 donation, and at least one said she’d like to give more — up to $3,000.

The libertarian law firm Institute for Justice sued on behalf of the campaign last month, seeking to have the limits stricken.

States are allowed to limit direct contributions to candidates because the public has a legitimate interest in preventing quid-pro-quo situations, where a campaign donor makes big contributions to a candidate in expectation of receiving favors once the candidate is in office. But there’s no possibility of such corruption in Washington’s recall elections, which simply involve whether someone should be removed from office, said Bill Maurer, who heads the Institute for Justice chapter in the state.

“These types of restrictions on campaign speech cannot be imposed by the government unless they have real evidence of a problem that needs to be addressed,” Maurer said. “The state was arguing that this is necessary to combat corruption, but what they’re doing is hobbling one of the people’s most powerful tools for removing corrupt politicians.”

The state argued that the limits are justified.

“While recall campaigns frequently present themselves as local citizen efforts, the reality in jurisdictions that allow unlimited contributions is that these efforts are bankrolled by wealthy individuals or special interest groups who are unhappy with the elected official’s performance and are ‘grass roots’ in name only,” the attorney general’s office wrote in court papers. “The threat of a well-financed recall effort sponsored by a single wealthy individual can be sufficient to unduly influence an elected official’s decision-making, as well as those who may seek to fill the vacancy.”

The judge found that argument too speculative and said there’s no evidence that’s the case in the Recall Dale Washam campaign.

“The State has failed to show that the $800 limit, as applied to a recall committee that is not closely tied to a replacement candidate, is ‘closely drawn to match’ the state’s interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption,” Bryan wrote. “This is particularly true in light of Washington’s legal process that proponents of a recall must go through before they may begin to gather signatures.”

Washington allows citizens to recall elected officials for malfeasance or violating their oath of office. Citizens who wish to start collecting signatures in support of a recall petition for a county official must first present their allegations of malfeasance to a county auditor, who turns them over to the county prosecutor, who brings them to a superior court judge to review whether the charges are legally sufficient to warrant the official’s removal from office.

That judge’s decision can be immediately appealed to the state Supreme Court. The legal process can be expensive, and it’s unfair to prohibit recall campaigns from collecting donations big enough to help them pay those legal bills, Maurer noted.

The Supreme Court upheld the recall charges in the Washam case, and Farris is now gathering signatures in hopes of making the fall ballot.

Washam was elected in 2008 after launching an unsuccessful recall effort against his predecessor. Independent investigations determined that he used the office to try to have his predecessor prosecuted and to punish workers who had supported him. Staff complaints against Washam resulted in at least three outside investigations, all of which found that Washam engaged in misconduct.

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