OLYMPIA – The political tempest blowing through the Puget Sound last week is the cautionary tale of Michael King and his apparent raids on the treasuries of political action committees set up to elect Democrats to the state Senate.
King was charged last week with embezzling up to $300,000 from the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. He was the committee’s executive director last year, so that fewer Democrats are in the Senate than in 2012 is the first clue he wasn’t very good at his job. Some Democrats suggested last week that because he was siphoning off funds, the Ds find themselves on the Senate’s minority.
More likely, it highlights a major problem in Washington’s extensive but imperfect campaign finance system.
The committee is what’s known as a “caucus” PAC, established by the members of political parties in each chamber to try keeping incumbents of their party in office and knock incumbents of the other party out. Because of their exalted partisan standing, they can give much more to a candidate than the average person or business or union. The formula, for those doing the math at home, is 90 cents for each registered voter in a legislative district, which is about $66,000 in a lightly registered district like Spokane’s 3rd or about $76,000 in the more heavily registered 4th and 6th districts.
By comparison, you can give a legislative candidate $900. But you can give any sum your bank account can withstand to a caucus committee, which might then give it to that candidate you admire.
Candidates can send any amount of leftover campaign money to a caucus committee. This sets up a circular slurry of money in which caucus committees give to candidates who later give some back to caucus committees. It helps explain why candidates who have either marginal or nonexistent opponents raise tens of thousands of dollars that they will never spend on their own campaign.
Both parties in both chambers have a pair of caucus committees, which are among the big gorillas of the campaign money system. The eight committees raised an average of $1.2 million each last year and spent most of it. And as often happens when large sums of money are present, someone figures out a creative way to tap it.
At some point during the last election cycle, according to court documents and Democratic officials, King did just that. As executive director of the SDCC and a principal in the affiliated Roosevelt Fund, he persuaded folks in charge to let him decide how money is being spent and sign the checks to make those payments. The treasurer did not require invoices or backup documents for the expenses.
It was a change in long-standing policy and a critical mistake, Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, one of the campaign committee’s co-chairmen, said last week.
Line items started showing up in the two PACs’ reports to reimburse King for things, which, had anyone been paying close attention, would have set off the klaxon. In January, he started being reimbursed for polls from a variety of survey firms for several thousands of dollars a pop – odd because campaigns usually pay pollsters directly and if King had the checkbook he could just send a check. In May, he was reimbursed for $1,191 for a staff lunch at an Olympia restaurant; it’s a nice place, but that’s an unrealistically huge fill for the committee’s staff of four.
The reimbursements were $5,000 or less, small enough to escape scrutiny, Nelson said. Over time, they mounted to a six-figure grab.
King kept “reimbursing” himself for polls that weren’t being conducted through Election Day, and into December and January, when there was no reason to be polling. He got three bonus checks in December – two on the same day – totaling $9,500, terribly generous considering by then Democrats had lost a recount in the Vancouver area by 71 votes, tipping the balance of the Senate into the hands of the chamber’s 23 Republicans and two disaffected Democrats and spoiling the committees’ raison d’être.
Turns out King had a drinking and gambling problem, or so he told Seattle police when caucus officials finally got suspicious earlier this year. Having run through his own money, he tapped into the caucus committees’ funds. He faces eight counts of theft, and Sen. Ed Murray, one of the co-chairmen of the campaign committee now running for Seattle mayor, last week had to answer questions how this happened on his watch.
Some Democratic senators suggested if King hadn’t been raiding the treasury, they could have spent more in Vancouver and drummed up an extra 72 votes for Tim Probst, who eventually lost to Republican Don Benton. That may be a stretch, because whatever his shortcomings, King was smart enough not to spend the treasury down to zero. There was money to spend on Probst, but they didn’t. Even if King was assuring the caucus his nonexistent polling showed Probst had the race in the bag, they had but to ask for the numbers.
Senate Democrats have shut down those two PACs and replaced them with two new committees with different management and more controls, Nelson said. She doesn’t think the Legislature needs to consider new laws to prevent this from happening again.
The Legislature could just remove the temptation by doing away with caucus PACs and their special slush-fund status. But that may be like asking the foxes to legislate a well-stocked henhouse out of existence.