PACIFIC COUNTY — Republican and Democratic leaders here are making changes after the state received complaints that both parties were violating campaign finance and public disclosure laws.
Glen Morgan, a conservative from Tenino, and other activists have been targeting political groups and candidates across Washington, accusing them of failing to follow rules for reporting campaign spending and contributions. Since 2016, Morgan has filed hundreds of complaints against left-leaning politicians and groups, including the Pacific County Democrats.
Liberals countered with a deluge of grievances against conservatives. And local Republicans have been caught in the crossfire of the campaign-finance fight.
The number of complaints made to the Public Disclosure Commission more than doubled to 796 in 2017, up from 309 in 2016. Spokeswoman Kim Bradford said the PDC saw a sharp rise in those that were linked to so-called citizen action notices last year. In 2017, the PDC received 283, compared to 36 in 2016.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office also saw a spike in the number of complaints last year. Spokeswoman Brionna Aho said of the 383 citizen action notices the office’s campaign-finance unit received in 2017, about 70 percent were from Morgan. The increase was more than sevenfold from the 52 notices filed in 2016.
When the state gets a citizen action notice, the attorney general or the county prosecutor has 45 days to investigate and respond. If they decide not to take the matter to court, the citizen can sue on behalf of the state.
Trouble for county Democrats
Morgan, executive director for the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights, filed a complaint in August against the Pacific County Democrats.
He accused the party of missing state reporting deadlines for 476 contributions, totaling $36,893 from 2015 to 2017. They were six to 251 days late, according to his complaint.
Morgan claims the party didn’t report spending $36,806 in 2015 and 2016 on time either. His complaint shows 88 expenses were late by six to 312 days. The Democrats also didn’t break down expenses properly, according to Morgan, who previously worked for the nonprofit think-tank, the Freedom Foundation.
Hw noted four of the seven committee officers’ names were not on a registration form. The state requires those who make decisions for the party and handle its money to be listed.
“The PDC should investigate the possibility that the Pacific County Democrats committed the above violations maliciously, which would be a class C felony,” Morgan wrote in his complaint.
In response to his complaint, local Democratic leaders decided to give the party’s money away and dissolve the group to avoid a potential lawsuit, former Chairman Frank Wolfe said.
“Now, there’s no organization to come after,” Wolfe, a county commissioner, said.
Confusing campaign-finance laws that require every penny to be accounted for on a tight timeline are sometimes tough for volunteers who run political parties to follow, he said.
“This is happening in virtually every Democratic organization in the state,” Wolfe, of Ocean Park, said. “When you’re a small, rural club, you might not be as sophisticated as you need to be.”
If the attorney general and county prosecutor decide against taking the party to court for the violations, Morgan could sue the organization and its committee officers. He has gone after Democrats from other counties and some of the organizations have been forced to disband or ordered to pay penalties.
His complaints have also prompted the attorney general, a Democrat, to file lawsuits against a number of liberal politicians and groups. With that in mind, Wolfe said, local Democratic leaders decided to shut the party down as of Dec. 31.
The group planned to donate about $14,000 that was left in its coffers to the Washington Democratic Party. But, Wolfe said, state Rep. Brian Blake, of Aberdeen, was at the meeting so members decided to give it to House Democrats instead.
They reorganized in February as the Democrats of Pacific County and elected new committee officers. This new entity will not function as a political action committee. Ron Bell is taking over for Wolfe as party chairman.
County Republicans dragged in
Local GOP leaders have also been dealing with a complaint. In November, Dmitri Iglitzin, a lawyer hired by the State Democratic Party, accused Pacific County Republicans of failing to file accurate and timely donation and expense reports in 2016 and 2017.
“The laws regulating the reporting of campaign contributions serve a critical role in promoting transparency and ethical conduct in our elections,” the Seattle-based labor attorney wrote in his complaint.
Iglitzin cited $4,758 from seven GOP contributions that were reported four to 39 days after the state deadline. He also counted 35 expenses, a total of $6,975, that the Republicans turned into the PDC four to 26 days late.
“There’s no excuse,” party Treasurer Brett Malin said, acknowledging he missed some deadlines.
He’s been working with the PDC to resolve issues that were included in the complaint. Malin, of Seaview, said his fellow committee officers have stepped up to help make sure reports are done correctly and filed on time in the future.
Local Republicans won’t have to reorganize because the party, unlike its liberal counterpart, is not a political action committee, he said. Now that the county Democrats aren’t either, the organization won’t be allowed to make campaign contributions. Once the state finishes looking into the complaint against the local party, it could get guidance, a warning or fines of up to $10,000.
Bradford, the PDC spokeswoman, said staff will continue to do whatever they can to help political leaders follow campaign finance and public disclosure rules.
“We do our best to make it easier for people to comply,” she said. “But the law is the law.”