A Spokane Valley legislator’s use of leftover campaign funds for contributions to conservative groups has drawn a complaint to a state agency from a Democratic watchdog.
Olympia attorney Walter Smith this month asked the Public Disclosure Commission to investigate state Rep. Matt Shea’s donations from his surplus campaign account to groups that aren’t registered as charities with the Washington secretary of state.
Among the groups in question are Americans for America, a Colorado based-organization that describes itself as “defending Western civilization and its Judeo-Christian heritage against all enemies, especially Islamic supremacism”; and Citizens for Free Speech, an Arizona-based organization that says it supports the exercise of that constitutional right by local activists as a way to “prevent an elite from imposing false propaganda to sway public opinion in a contrived manner.”
Shea contributed $3,500 to Americans for America in September and $2,000 to Citizens for Free Speech in August. Smith also takes issue with a $1,000 contribution Shea made to Daniel’s Prayer Ministry, of Olympia, in 2017.
All three are registered with the Internal Revenue Service as organizations that can receive tax-deductible contributions, and Daniel’s Prayer Ministry is registered as a nonprofit with the secretary of state.
Shea said in an email that all the organizations involved in the complaint are charities with bona fide 501(c)(3) status with the IRS. He has until Dec. 20 to respond to the PDC complaint, and a decision by the commission might take months after that.
But none of them meets the requirement in state statute that a donation from a surplus account be made only to a charity registered with the secretary of state, Smith said in his complaint. In an email Thursday, he said he hoped the PDC would “review the situation and take appropriate action.”
This isn’t the first time the two have clashed over campaign disclosure laws. Smith filed a complaint against Shea in 2017 alleging late reporting in the 2016 campaign. In response to that complaint, Shea told the PDC his reports were prepared by a certified public accountant, and any delays were a result of trying to provide accurate records, which were amended to provide more information. He also quoted state statutes that say PDC information isn’t to be “misused for arbitrary and capricious purposes,” and criticized Smith.
“The complainant has filed numerous complaints against elected officials with the goal of harassing them,” Shea wrote.
But he received a $1,000 penalty from the state Office of the Attorney General and paid Smith $3,750 in attorney fees and costs from the 2017 complaint. The money was paid out of his campaign surplus fund.
Shea, like most legislators, has a surplus account for money raised from donors during a campaign but not spent. In the 2018 campaign, he transferred almost $42,000 to his surplus account after the August primary and another $16,000 after the November general election.
The rules for the use of that money are different and somewhat less stringent than the money in their regular campaign accounts.
Surplus money is often transferred back into the candidate’s regular campaign account at the start of the next campaign.
It can be used between campaigns by elected officials for certain expenses connected to their office that aren’t reimbursed by their elective body. Some legislators use their accounts to pay cellphone bills, buy furniture or provide internet services to their district offices or cover mileage to political or constituent events.
Shea has used his surplus account for office security expenses, database maintenance and opposition research. It reimbursed him for mileage for trips to discuss his proposal for turning Eastern Washington into the 51st state and for a trip to Yakima for a meeting on hemp, which he has supported legalizing.
Between campaigns he also uses the surplus account to cover the costs of his radio broadcasts on ACN, the American Christian Network, which have totaled about $13,000 since 2015, and other broadcast expenses. A volunteer for the campaign of his 2018 election opponent recently filed a separate PDC complaint questioning those payments.
Surplus funds also can be donated to certain political organizations, and all four legislative caucuses have a political action committee that helps elect new candidates and gets contributions from veteran candidates when their campaigns are over.
Some legislators, such as state Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, and state Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, have used their surplus campaigns almost exclusively for contributions to local or state party organizations. Shea has sent $60,000 to the House Republican Organizational Committee over the last eight years.
Charitable donations are also an acceptable use of surplus funds, and PDC records show a wide variety of choices made by legislators. Former state Rep. Larry Crouse, another Valley Republican, gave nearly $53,000 to a religions charity Gospel 4 Asia. After he died in 2011, some $23,500 in the late Sen. Bob McCaslin’s surplus fund was divided among seven charities that he’d supported in previous years, including Boy Scouts, Meals on Wheels, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association.
Surplus campaign funds can be returned to donors or sent to the state treasurer to be deposited in the general fund or to help with expenses for certain state projects, such as the State Library. Those options are rarely exercised.