Case sparks campaign-contribution debate

Staff writerJune 25, 2013 

If you sue the state’s campaign-finance watchdog, do your legal fees count as a campaign contribution?

The state Public Disclosure Commission says yes. Backers of an attempt to recall Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam two years ago say no. So does the libertarian law firm that won a legal victory against the PDC last year.

The Washam recall attempt is long dead. It fell short in September 2011. County voters elected a new assessor last year, but legal aftershocks from the failed recall continue. Their implications could affect future recall campaigns, including Tuesday’s vote on a potential recall of Cy Sun, embattled mayor of the small city of Pacific.

Two weeks ago, the Virginia-based Institute for Justice filed suit against the PDC in Pierce County Superior Court, charging the state agency with federal civil rights violations.

The suit seeks a preliminary injunction to prevent the state from pursuing enforcement actions while a separate federal case runs its course. The state opposes the injunction.

On Friday, Superior Court Judge Katherine Stolz sided with recall backers and the institute, granting the injunction and halting the PDC’s enforcement while the cut-and-thrust continues in federal court.

The argument is a complicated, two-front debate only lawyers could love. It pits state laws governing campaign disclosure against federal civil rights statutes, and it’s raging in local and federal court.

The battles started in 2011 when the PDC contended that pro bono legal services provided to Washam recall backers violated campaign contribution limits. Local attorneys Jeff Helsdon and Tom Oldfield provided free legal services to recall petitioner Robin Farris, a Puyallup resident who wanted Washam gone. Those legal services equated to $33,000. The costs were reported to the PDC, in keeping with state law.

However, the PDC argued that the legal services exceeded individual contribution limits, which are capped at $900.

Recall backers sued in federal court, arguing that the $900 cap was unconstitutional. They sought an immediate injunction to prevent the PDC’s enforcement while the argument played out. The Institute for Justice joined in at that point. The firm engages in similar cases around the country, typically providing its services at no cost.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan sided with recall backers and the Institute, and granted the injunction. The PDC appealed that decision to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and lost.

The case fell back to Bryan, who ultimately ruled that state laws limiting contributions to recall campaigns didn’t apply to the Washam recall effort.

Bryan’s decision didn’t end the argument. Because he limited his decision to the Washam recall, the underlying legal question remained unanswered: Was the state’s law valid, and would it apply to other recall elections?

Lacking an answer to that question, the Institute and recall backers filed their own appeal to the Ninth Circuit, seeking a definitive ruling. The Institute also filed a motion for legal fees, seeking roughly $340,000 from the state. Both arguments are pending in federal court.

In March, the PDC opened an investigation of the Washam recall backers and filed a complaint alleging they failed to report campaign contributions – the legal fees associated with the federal lawsuit. The complaint includes the threat of fines.

Here’s where the latest lawsuit in Pierce County enters the picture. Friday’s decision by Judge Stolz stops the PDC from pursuing penalties against the recall backers and the Institute until the federal lawsuit is resolved.

The PDC contends that the legal services provided by the Institute qualify as campaign contributions to the recall campaign, and must be reported.

The Institute argues the opposite: Suing the PDC and winning wasn’t a campaign contribution — it was an exercise of civil rights, and a fight against a law. One statement in court briefings filed by the Institute underlines that point.

“(The Institute) did not contribute any money or make an in-kind contribution to Recall Dale Washam,” the briefing states. “(The Institute) took no position on whether Dale Washam should or should not be recalled by the Pierce County voters.”

State attorneys arguing for the PDC say the complaint from recall backers and the Institute is a non-starter. They add that state laws requiring disclosure simply require transparency; they don’t prevent recall backers and the institute from pursuing their arguments in court.

“Nothing in those laws either prohibits or compels political committees from seeking the assistance of anyone to protect against laws they believe violate their civil rights,” state attorneys wrote.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 sean.robinson@

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