Conservative think tank The Freedom Foundation has been accused of violating election laws during last year’s Initiative 1 campaign that went before Olympia voters.
The Northwest Accountability Project announced this week that it has filed a complaint with the Attorney General contending the foundation failed to register as a political committee or report expenditures to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission about its anti-initiative campaign.
Initiative 1 called for an income tax on the city’s highest earners to create a public college tuition fund for Olympia high school graduates. The measure failed when only 47 percent of Olympia voters approved the measure.
The complaint cites a fundraising letter from Freedom Foundation CEO Tom McCabe that was mailed in August to help fight Initiative 1, and notes that no expenditure reports were filed with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission.
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“Your gift today of $5,000, $1,000, $500, $250, $100, or whatever you can afford,” the letter concluded, “will greatly help the Freedom Foundation as we make our stand against those who would saddle Washington with an income tax.”
The initiative was tied up in the courts and did not qualify for the election ballot until Sept. 7, about two weeks after the foundation’s letter was mailed. Jami Lund, senior policy analyst for the foundation, told The Olympian that these circumstances mean the fundraising activity does not require reporting.
“This letter constitutes basic issue advocacy — and illustrates the foundation’s thought leadership and grassroots organizing abilities in opposing an idea,” Lund wrote in an Oct. 14 email. “(Initiative 1) was not a ballot measure until the Court of Appeals ordered it to be so — long after this letter was sent out to potential donors.”
Greg Overstreet, the foundation’s managing attorney, denied the allegations and said the “Freedom Foundation is most certainly not a political action committee.”
But Andrew Biviano, co-founder and president of the Northwest Accountability Project, said the foundation devoted resources of staff and communications during the Initiative 1 campaign in an attempt to influence the election outcome. The public has a right to know what was spent, he said.
“If they didn’t violate the law, then the AG will determine that,” Biviano told The Olympian. “People should work out in the open.”
This isn’t the first legal clash between the two entities. In 2015, the union-backed Northwest Accountability Project filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service in an attempt to revoke the Freedom Foundation’s tax-exempt status.