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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich’s video address to county commission candidate draws complaint

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is defending his criticism of a Spokane County Commission candidate in a video posted to social media last month.   (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich’s retort to a Spokane County commission candidate in a video recorded at the courthouse and posted to the office’s Facebook page is being investigated by state election officials as a potential misuse of taxpayer resources.

Knezovich said the video is part of a public information campaign intended to give citizens the ability to question leaders he believes are working against public safety efforts of his office.

Spokane resident Paul Dillon filed a complaint with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission earlier this month alleging Knezovich’s address to several elected officials in February violated a prohibition on the use of a public office in campaigning. The agency, which is charged with ensuring compliance of state campaign finance laws, opened an investigation Tuesday. Dillon alleges that Knezovich’s singling out of Amber Waldref, a former Spokane City Councilwoman who’s seeking election to the new five-member county commission this fall, amounted to advocating on behalf of her opponent, Spokane City Councilman Michael Cathcart.

“When he mentioned Waldref as a candidate, he certainly appears to have crossed PDC law,” said Dillon, who also serves as the vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho.

Knezovich denies violation of state law, arguing that the video was one of several he’s made in recent years and pointed out who the public should question regarding what he sees as an escalation of crime in the community. The video is part of a two-part series intended to illustrate that increase in crime, the sheriff said, and the message is intended to inform the public.

“I’m not saying ‘Don’t vote for Amber,’” Knezovich said. “I’m saying ‘Come and have a chat.’”

In the video, posted to YouTube on Feb. 18, Knezovich speaks in front of an image of Waldref, identifying her as a “candidate for Spokane County Commissioner.” He accuses the former councilwoman of being part of a bloc of officials critical of his agency, a claim that other members of Spokane City Council mentioned by Knezovich have disputed, and that she supports “broken policies” that have not improved public safety in the community.

The law Dillon cited prohibits using public facilities “for the purpose of assisting a campaign for election of any person to office.” It grants an exemption for “activities which are part of a the normal and regular conduct of the office or agency.”

“The purpose of these laws is to avoid confusion for voters,” Dillon said. “That’s partially what the sheriff is trying to do, in addition to bullying and intimidating progressive and Black leaders in Spokane.”

Knezovich in addition to challenging the City Council members also told viewers to question state Sen. Andy Billig and Reps. Marcus Riccelli and Timm Ormsby. He said he selected those officials to highlight because of their support for policies he said are hindering law enforcement’s ability to investigate crime. But he also said part of the reason for including Waldref was because of a Twitter exchange last fall when the sheriff’s office shared an image of their advertising efforts in New York City, and the former councilwoman – who had not yet announced her candidacy – suggested there should be more oversight of the sheriff’s budget as a result.

“Amber is already criticizing the sheriff’s office. The sheriff’s office has a right to address those,” Knezovich said.

Waldref said she was surprised when she saw the sheriff identifying her personally in the video.

“I think that it was really directed, it seemed, more at elected officials,” she said.

She didn’t comment on the sheriff’s response to her social media post, instead saying she looked “forward to partnering with law enforcement, elected officials and community leaders to increase public safety.”

The sheriff called the complaint “political bully tactics” intended to silence his office, and called such filings “common this time of year.” In fact, Knezovich has been the subject of two previous complaints with the PDC, one of which was dismissed.

In 2016, the agency issued a $100 fine after it found a violation of the same public facilities law when the office issued a news release, on official letterhead, announcing Knezovich’s endorsement for reelection in the 2014 campaign by the union representing supervisory law enforcement officers within the sheriff’s office. Knezovich said in that instance he had miscommunicated with then-Deputy Craig Chamberlin, who is now seeking election as Knezovich’s successor after being terminated by the sheriff.

Knezovich repeated in an interview what he said at a news conference addressing Chamberlin’s termination earlier this month, that he intends to retire at the end of his term and teach at the college level in Wyoming, to be closer to his grandchildren.

“This does nothing for me in higher elected office, or anything else,” Knezovich said.

Dillon contends in his complaint that the message in the video, even if it does not explicitly call for a vote for one candidate over another, amounts to an “independent expenditure” under state law. That means it is a statement of support or opposition of a candidate for office that is required to be reported under state campaign finance law.

The PDC has 90 days to make a determination whether a formal investigation into the complaint is warranted.