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Public Disclosure Commissions fines Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich for electioneering, lobbying; sheriff vows appeal

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich listens to Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Haskell during a news conference in February 2022.   (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich listens to Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Haskell during a news conference in February 2022.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich violated a pair of state laws prohibiting the use of public office for electioneering and use of public funds for indirect lobbying when he produced a YouTube video attacking Democratic lawmakers for their stance on crime, the Washington Public Disclosure Commission ruled Thursday.

Knezovich was fined $300. The sheriff may sign a “statement of understanding” admitting to the violations within 30 days to avoid $100 of that fine, said Fred Jarrett, chair of the PDC, during a hearing Thursday announcing the finding.

“The content is neither legal nor regular,” said Jarrett, during a brief online hearing that Knezovich did not attend Thursday afternoon.

In an interview later Thursday, Knezovich said he did not attend because he was losing his voice. The sheriff maintained he did not violate state law, and he planned to appeal the ruling, which he can do within 30 days under state law.

An investigation launched following a complaint filed in March by Paul Dillon. Dillon applauded the PDC’s decision Thursday, saying he was not only concerned about the sheriff targeting lawmakers in the YouTube video but also community activists working toward police reform.

“I’m disappointed that it took so long,” Dillon said, pointing to campaign ads during this election cycle that involved the retiring sheriff’s endorsement and he believed may have also implicated disclosure laws. Dillon did not file any other complaints against the sheriff.

Knezovich argued in written filings that the video was produced as part of a public information campaign about increased violence and crime in the community, that he was not advocating for the election of any specific candidate and that an exemption in the law allows communication that are “part of the normal and regular conduct of the office or agency.”

During the video, Knezovich shows photos of lawmakers who he said supported reforms making it difficult for law enforcement to do their jobs. That included members of the majority of the Spokane City Council, state Sen. Andy Billig and Reps. Marcus Riccelli and Timm Ormsby, and then a photo of Amber Waldref, who as of Feb. 18, when the video was recorded, had filed with the PDC to raise money for a county commission campaign.

“This individual was a Spokane city councilperson from 2010 to 2018,” Knezovich said in the video, pointing to a picture of Waldref on a screen. “So, she was part of those years of a broken criminal justice system, and now she wants to run for Spokane County commissioner.”

Waldref had filed paperwork with the commission to run as a Democrat on Nov. 17, 2021. Michael Cathcart, her Republican challenger, had filed Jan. 2, a month and a half before the YouTube video was posted. Knezovich made written arguments to the PDC that the filing date wasn’t until May, months after the video, but Jarret said he did not find that argument compelling.

Waldref defeated Cathcart to represent portions of northeast Spokane and the South Hill.

The PDC also found that, in the beginning of the video, Knezovich posed the question he said he received from the community: “Who should we be talking to about getting you the tools and the ability to take care of these issues?” He then showed the images of Billig, Riccelli and Ormsby.

Knezovich said he did not intend for viewers to contact those lawmakers directly.

Knezovich said in a written response “that I invited those listed in the video to meet with me so we could work together in order to find common ground to resolve these issues.”

Jarrett also denied that argument in his findings.

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