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Wednesday, November 20, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Supporters of coal, oil train fine initiative accused of violating Washington campaign finance laws

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 16, 2017

A billboard supporting Proposition 2, which would fine the owners of rail cars carrying uncovered coal and some types of oil traveling through downtown, is seen along Trent Avene in Spokane on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. The group Safer Spokane, which paid for the billboards, is the subject of a campaign finance complaint filed by those opposing the initiative. (Kip Hill / The Spokesman-Review)
A billboard supporting Proposition 2, which would fine the owners of rail cars carrying uncovered coal and some types of oil traveling through downtown, is seen along Trent Avene in Spokane on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. The group Safer Spokane, which paid for the billboards, is the subject of a campaign finance complaint filed by those opposing the initiative. (Kip Hill / The Spokesman-Review)

Supporters of the November ballot measure imposing fines on train cars carrying certain types of coal and oil through downtown have been hit with a complaint alleging noncompliance with campaign finance laws.

A representative of the Spokane Home Builders Association, which is opposing the rail initiative, filed a complaint this week with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, as well as the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office and Washington Attorney General’s Office, alleging the supporters of Proposition 2 haven’t been reporting contributions and expenses to the state as required by state law. The complaint also alleges the group Safer Spokane, which is advertising on billboards and yard signs throughout town, didn’t file required paperwork to form as a political committee.

“If it’s confusing to us, imagine how confusing it is to the general public,” said Arthur Whitten, government affairs director for the Home Builders Association.

Mike Bell, a retired accountant who is acting as treasurer for the Safer Spokane group, said they’re working with members of the Public Disclosure Commission to correct prior reports.

“It’s a lack of experience on my part, is pretty much all it is,” Bell said.

Political committees are required under state law to file incorporation paperwork within two weeks of “the expectation of receiving contributions or making expenditures in any election campaign,” according to state law. Recent filings by Safer Spokane, made under the committee name “Proposition 2,” list contributions to the cause in November 2016. The group didn’t file its incorporation paperwork until Sept. 13, according to Public Disclosure Commission records.

On Friday, the organization filed an updated incorporation form identifying themselves as “Safer Spokane” in online finance reports.

State regulations also require regular reports of contributions and expenses prior to the election. Monthly reports were required through June, followed by weekly updates for the rest of the campaign. Safer Spokane filed those reports dating back to November of last year, also on Sept. 13.

Bell said the group wasn’t aware they had to file paperwork with the committee in the same manner as political candidates and began doing so the day after being informed of the rule. State law only exempts political committees from reporting requirements if it is campaigning on behalf of federal elected officials or in elections in which there are fewer than 5,000 eligible voters.

The complaint from the Home Builders Association also alleges Safer Spokane has failed to reports its top five contributors on election communications as required under state law.

The main group opposing Proposition 2, the Committee to Protect Spokane’s Economy, lists BNSF Railway, Union Pacific, Better Spokane Inc., Lighthouse Resources Inc. and Tesoro Savage as its top five donors on campaign mailers and advertisements.

The Committee to Protect Spokane’s Economy filed formation paperwork Aug. 3. They collected their first donation three weeks later, according to PDC filings.

Railroads have threatened litigation should voters approve the measure, which would impose a $261 fine on rail cars carrying uncovered coal and crude oil stored at a certain pressure. Better Spokane Inc. is a nonprofit whose board is made up of Spokane businessmen Michael Senske, of Pearson Packaging; Ryan Gee, of Gee Automotive; and Fritz Wolff, of The Wolff Co. Lighthouse Resources owns coal mines in Montana and Wyoming. Tesoro Savage is the group behind a controversial proposed oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver that would process up to 360,000 barrels of crude per day and has been opposed by some environmental groups.

The Committee to Protect Spokane’s Economy reports contributions of $149,650 and expenses of about $8,800 through Thursday. Lighthouse Resources is the largest contributor, giving nearly $64,000 to the group.

Safer Spokane reports contributions of about $4,800 and expenses just under $2,000. No organizations have been listed as contributors. Representatives of the Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29 said they had made a contribution to the campaign at a news conference held last week to unveil the billboards that have sprung up around town.

Kim Bradford, a spokeswoman for the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, confirmed receipt of the complaint and said it had been forwarded to the state attorney general’s office for investigation.

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