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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Progressive groups file complaint over phony write-in ads

Several groups supporting Democratic candidates filed a complaint Monday against a Republican activist who sent out ads urging voters to cast write-in ballots for candidates who aren’t actually running.

But the complaint is unlikely to be resolved before the Nov. 6 election.

The progressive organization Fuse, along with Planned Parenthood Votes, the state Labor Council and other labor organizations, filed the complaint against Glen Morgan of Olympia, an officer of the two political committees involved in the controversial ads targeting Democratic legislative candidates in Spokane, Pierce and Kitsap counties, and the Olympic Peninsula.

As The Spokesman-Review reported Saturday, a newly formed group calling itself Conscience of the Progressives sent mail ads to voters in the 6th Legislative District urging them to write in the name of Joe Pakootas for the open Senate seat, rather than Democrat Jessa Lewis, who is on the ballot running against Republican Jeff Holy.

The ad claims Lewis is not a true progressive, and quotes an endorsement from Fuse’s Progressive Voters Guide praising Pakootas. But that was from the 2016 Voters Guide, when Pakootas, currently the state party vice chairman, was running for Congress. He’s not running a write-in campaign for the state Senate and is supporting Lewis, as are the organizations named in the ad.

The ad was denounced by both Lewis and Holy.

“This is a new low for Washington,” Aaron Ostrom, Fuse executive director, said after the complaint was filed.

Morgan defended the mailers Friday, saying he was merely trying to give progressives unhappy with their Democratic choices in those races another option. But he acknowledged Pakootas isn’t running a write-in campaign and hadn’t even been contacted about the ad.

Fuse and the other groups are alleging that Conscience of the Progressives and Send a Message, a second group that raised the money for the ads, are violating state law by falsely implying the groups support Pakootas and other candidates mentioned as write-ins, when they actually support Lewis and the candidates on the ballot. They also falsely imply that Pakootas and the others are trying to defeat the real candidates, which could expose them to “hatred, contempt, ridicule.”

The Public Disclosure Commission will give Morgan a chance to respond to the complaint, and it has 90 days to decide whether to try to resolve the case or open an investigation. The commission currently has about 400 open cases, although relatively few involve complaints about lies in campaign literature.

The state Supreme Court has twice struck down – in 1999 and 2007 – statutes covering lies in political campaigns.

“It’s a tricky area of law that intersects with the First Amendment,” the PDC’s Kim Bradford said.

The law was rewritten in 2009, creating a violation for anyone to sponsor “with actual malice a (false) statement constituting libel or defamation.” But that statute has not been tested before the state Supreme Court.