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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: PAC fueled by Spokane firefighters’ money should clean up or get out of local politics

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 31, 2017

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

The end may be near for Spokane for Honest Government, the political action committee representing the firefighters union and other labor groups.

If it dies, whatever rises from the ashes should try, belatedly, to live up to that grandiose name. And the politicians who depend on unions and union PACs – which is to say, every single member of the City Council’s liberal supermajority – should do whatever they can to see that it does. Because while politics is full of unholy alliances, this one is most germane to Spokane’s city government right now.

The signs of Spokane for Honest Government’s possible demise emerged last week.

First, it produced an absurd and factually shaky smearing of a City Council candidate over minor health code violations at his restaurant. Local 29 of the International Association of Fire Fighters promptly announced it would no longer support the Spokane for Honest Government PAC, which was comically disingenuous, given that Spokane for Honest Government basically is the firefighters union – it gets most of its money from Local 29-related PACs and is led by the union’s president.

That’s what shell games are for, I guess.

Then came the news that the PAC was being fined $7,000 by the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission for failing to report more than $94,000 of spending on ads in support of council members Lori Kinnear and Karen Stratton during the 2015 election. The spending was reported months and months after the election, so late it may as well not have been reported at all. This fine, the PAC’s attorney says, threatens the group’s very existence.

Politics is awash in money and its corrosive effects. Vast sums of dark spending now plague campaigns and public discourse. The ability of voters to discern which billionaire purchased which politician, or paid for which bit of advertising spin or mailed out which bold-faced lie, has become increasingly difficult. Loads of supposedly nonpartisan organizations hide their donors behind a fake shield of “nonprofit” status, then wade into politics up to their nostrils.

And there is naturally a deep reluctance among those at the trough to clean up the sty.

Among campaign finance reformers on the left, where legitimate concern thrives about the influence of business and rich individuals, there is frequently awkward silence around the nexus between liberal politicians and public employee unions.

But that’s the most important money tree in Spokane politics right now, given the liberal council. It may not be the axis of evil that conservatives make it out to be, but it’s clearly where the light should shine, and disclosure is the only feeble flame we have. Voters should be able to find out who spent what, on whom and when. Information connecting the dots between supporters and the supported should be available in a timely fashion.

In the case of the 2015 election, it clearly was not, according to the PDC investigation. About 90 percent of Spokane for Honest Government’s considerable independent spending on the Kinnear and Stratton races was not reported until summer of 2016 – roughly $94,000 out of $105,000. The law requires reporting of this particular kind of spending within 24 hours.

That’s a lot of money in the context of a City Council race. The PAC spent more money on Kinnear and Stratton than either raised and spent on her own.

Randy Marler, the head of the PAC and union president, said organization officials just didn’t know any better. He said, in a written response to the PDC, that this vast sum of unreported election spending “was simply a failure of training for the PAC treasurer last year. … (I)t is our position that this issue has been properly resolved.”

That is preposterous. For one thing, the treasurer who filed the late reports had earlier filed reports properly, the PDC noted. Also, the firefighters and their related PACs are regular, vigorous contributors to local campaigns. Every season, they spend thousands and thousands of dollars directly supporting candidates and campaigning “independently.” Every season, their ads appear in mailboxes and on TVs. Every season, some of them suit up in their firefighting gear and pose for campaign photos with their favored candidates.

Which is their right. But they are the very definition of a special interest, and the idea that they are naive, unsophisticated campaigners – innocents who didn’t realize they were supposed to report $94,000 in campaign spending until the summer after the election – is outlandishly hard to swallow. Incompetence is no excuse when you play at the high-stakes table.

The PDC hit the group with its maximum fine of $10,000, then scaled it back to $7,000. Its attorney said that could force the group out of business.

Might be right where it belongs.

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