The state Senate voted unanimously Thursday to tighten state campaign-finance rules for political committees, including criminal sanctions and direct fines of up to $10,000 for serious violations.
The legislation arose in response to the Moxie Media scandal in last fall’s elections. Moxie is a Democrat-allied political consulting firm that got caught concealing its expenditures through a confusing web of shell political action committees and by delaying reports of its spending.
The limits on transfers of cash from one PAC to another in Senate Bill 5021 are less strict than what sponsoring Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, had proposed. But he said the milder rules should “minimize the risk” of cheating.
“Regardless of your party or ideology, I think pretty much everyone agrees that it’s important for voters to know who’s behind campaigns and how money is being used. In the past several years, we’ve seen a steep escalation of donations and campaign messages that seek to influence voters while masking the sources and agendas of the groups behind them,” Pridemore said in a statement after the 46-0 vote.
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Republican Sen. Dan Swecker of Rochester said the measure is “an even-handed approach to improving disclosure” and improving enforcement.
Meanwhile, the Attorney General’s Office is pursuing sanctions in the Moxie case that could include fines in the tens of thousands of dollars. Allegations include the funneling of labor groups’ money into ads promoting one Democrat, attacking incumbent Democratic Sen. Jean Berkey of Everett and promoting a rival “Conservative Party” candidate who helped eliminate Berkey in the August 2010 primary.
The measure goes to the House, where a separate measure – HB 1732 – was introduced by Democratic Rep. Troy Kelley of Tacoma.
Kelley was attacked over several campaigns in mailers that he believed violated disclosure rules. But the PDC told him that even if he proved the violations, they would be considered a first offense because the group attacking him used different PAC names each election cycle.
Kelley said an anti-abortion committee also attacked him last year but refused to give him a copy of the hit piece. His bill would require PACs to provide copies of their advertising upon request of the PDC.
The House now is likely to make amendments to Pridemore’s bill rather than pass Kelley’s version, said House State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee chairman Sam Hunt, D-Olympia.
Hunt said the bill also responds to the right-of-center group Americans for Prosperity – led locally last year by Kirby Wilbur, the state Republican Party’s new chairman – that refused to report some of its independent expenditures that might have tipped some east King County legislative races into the GOP’s hands.
Pridemore said that before revising the bill, lawmakers worked with diverse groups such as the Building Industry Association of Washington, Association of Washington Business, American Civil Liberties Union and Washington State Labor Council.
As it stands, the Senate bill would:
• Require that a PAC has at least 10 donors of $10 or more each before it can donate to another PAC. It also would bar an organization from creating multiple PACs that represent different sides of a campaign, and it would bar any two PACs from having the same name but different purposes.
• Require reporting of “electioneering communications” valued at $1,000 or more; that’s down from $5,000. And it would require electronic filing by candidates or committees that expect to spend $5,000 or more in a campaign or spent that much the preceding year.
• Require that a PAC’s name include the name of the person or entity who created it.
• More than double the value of the PDC’s maximum fine to $10,000, up from $4,200 for multiple violations. (The PDC already now can levy up to $1,700 in fines for single violations, although it most frequently issues small fines or suspends them on condition of future compliance with the law.)
• Makes certain intentional violations a misdemeanor and makes false or forged filings a felony.
Unlike an earlier version of the measure, SB 5021 applies disclosure requirements to political parties, according to Pridemore.
The criminal sanctions are limited to wrongful acts that are intentional, according to an amendment from Republican Sen. Don Benton of Vancouver. Benton said the revised bill goes “a long way to making our campaigns more transparent, cleaner” and to letting voters know who is paying for campaign materials.
Initiative promoter Tim Eyman testified against the bill in committee, arguing that it would limit First Amendment rights and invite litigation. Also objecting Thursday was the institute for Justice, a national libertarian public interest law firm.
Jeanette Petersen, staff lawyer with the Institute for Justice’s state chapter in Seattle, said the revised bill still has constitutional problems because it says PAC to PAC donations can be made only by groups having 10 registered voters that have donated $10 each. She said the group will warn lawmakers that this could lead to costly litigation at a time when the state lacks money.
The five-member PDC, which is chaired by David Seabrook of Battle Ground, did not ask for the bill. But its commissioners met last week on other issues and agreed with the bill’s amendments and continue to support the bill, spokeswoman Lori Anderson said.
The PDC’s fining authority was increased about five years ago. After the nasty 2006 campaigns for state Supreme Court, the commission also recommended that the governor and legislative leaders seek limits on PAC to PAC donations and limits on who could donate to third party, independent campaign groups.
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 firstname.lastname@example.org www.theolympian.com/politicsblog