November 22, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Big-money initiatives require big-money enforcement

 

As the record-breaking spending on Initiative 522 showed, the landscape of campaign finance is rapidly changing. Enforcement needs to keep up, but the gendarmes are badly outgunned.

This week, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson amended a complaint against Grocery Manufacturers Association, saying the group concealed an additional $3.4 million on top of the $7.2 million in the original filing. GMA funneled $10.6 million to the No on I-522 campaign, which opposed the ballot measure calling for labels on genetically engineered foods. The initiative was narrowly rejected by voters.

The Attorney General’s Office says GMA collected donations from about three dozen companies, such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Nestle, but failed to form the necessary political action committee and file the required disclosure reports. Upon filing the initial complaint, Ferguson demanded that GMA comply immediately. Two days later, it formed a PAC.

Typically, this would be a matter for the Public Disclosure Commission to pursue, but its budget has been slashed in recent years, which has crippled enforcement. Plus, $10,000 is the maximum amount the PDC can fine a campaign scofflaw, which is laughably low in races that feature millions in spending. And the final assessment doesn’t come until long after Election Day.

For deep-pocketed interests, that can be viewed as the cost of doing business. So such cases properly belong with the Attorney General’s Office because it can demand immediate action and sue for far greater penalties.

In 2010, the office sued Moxie Media for its role in illegally coordinating labor money successfully used to shoot down a West Side legislative candidate. As a result, the marketing firm settled for $250,000 in fines and $40,000 in attorneys’ fees. But $140,000 of that amount was suspended, and Moxie Media won’t have to pay as long as it doesn’t reoffend.

The GMA case is headed for a Thurston County court next year if it isn’t settled beforehand. The state will be pitting its attorneys, who make less than $52,000 a year in the first five years, against a phalanx of corporate lawyers who probably clear that amount in the first quarter.

Election spending, particularly the big-budget initiatives, have dwarfed the state’s campaign enforcement mechanisms. Even if GMA is fined a significant sum, it won’t overturn the outcome of a close race. GMA spent $46 million on a similar measure in California, so its members are willing to shell out whatever it takes.

The Public Disclosure Commission was itself a product of a citizen initiative, the same one that established the Public Records Act. It passed overwhelmingly because citizens want open government and a transparent political process.

The challenge for the state is to devise an enforcement apparatus that upholds those principles. With mountains of money shipped in from all over – labeled or unlabeled – it won’t be easy.

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