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Fri., Aug. 31, 2012

Editorial: Voters can, should track use of surplus campaign cash

Clothes. Booze. Harvard University tuition.

Elected officials in Washington have complete discretion spending surplus campaign funds, as long as the use is reported and pertains to their public responsibilities.

That sounds about right.

State law (WAC 390-16-230) says: “all expenditures made from the retained surplus funds after the last day of the election cycle shall be reported in detail as to source, recipient, purpose, amount and date of each transaction.”

It’s a good law, but only as good as the compliance and oversight. That’s provided officials are even aware of the reporting requirements. Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, who has held that office since 1997, says he was unaware of the law until recently. His blind spot suggests there are probably hundreds of officials down to the county and city level who are clueless about the law.

The popular Owen used his surplus cash to buy liquor for office functions, as well as expenses related to a trade mission to China. The money was the alternative to spending taxpayer dollars.

If his contributors are OK with the tab – now that they are aware of it – and voters are informed (trust opponents to find questionable deals), that should be the end of it.

If a politician, for example, can claim that $7,000 spent on suits and such over five years is not a wardrobe malfunction, but necessary to fulfilling his responsibilities in the Legislature, that is between him, his tailor, his contributors and voters in Carhartts. Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, says the finery is worn almost exclusively in Olympia.

But there may be red flags.

Former Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, contributed $10,000 in campaign cash to a charity run by his wife. Charitable contributions are a permissible use of the money, but that was three-quarters of the charity’s contributions in 2008, when Zarelli was still in office. It was, obviously, disclosed, but who knew?

Again, that’s between Zarelli and those who supported him during a 17-year tenure in the Legislature.

What may be more remarkable about an Associated Press analysis of 500,000 spending reports filed since 2005 is how relatively few – in the hundreds – raise an eyebrow about just how an iPad or Mariners tickets fit the definition of “public office-related expenses.”

The Public Disclosure Commission provides no guidelines, so it’s up to the official to define office-related. Technically, they may be out-of-bounds, if they conduct public and private business on an iPhone purchased with campaign cash, but how tediously will officials apply the law?

Perhaps that boundary is best defined by voters and donors. The reports are posted at the commission’s website, Judge for yourself.

To respond to this editorial online, go to and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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