Behind a complicated web of political action committees, all with ties to Seattle consultant Moxie Media and all spending money on Washington state campaigns, there’s a coalition of labor unions and other liberal interest groups.
But picking out which of the groups is responsible for any one attack ad can be difficult, most of all in Moxie Media’s most successful effort this year, which helped defeat an incumbent state senator by hitting her from both the left and the right.
The groups have a common agenda but were far from united on the tactics used against Sen. Jean Berkey – or at least, in their willingness to put their names behind those tactics.
“Some might want to take credit, and some might never want to be tagged with it,” said Moxie founder Lisa Mac-Lean, “and you’re working for all of them.”
That leaves MacLean in a position of control that’s different from the traditional campaign arrangement in which a candidate or group pays a political consultant to do a specific job.
Now that her target, Berkey, has cried foul in an election complaint, MacLean is retracing her steps for state investigators. MacLean essentially says she was as confused as anyone about where the money would come from.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge, who is representing Berkey in her legal fight, isn’t satisfied by what he called an “elaborate new explanation for the shenanigans that took place here.” He says Berkey will sue to overturn the election results if state officials don’t act first.
FIREFIGHTERS SAID NO
MacLean says a PAC called 2nd Defense was originally tapped to provide a “tentative” pledge of $9,000 to cover the cost of the mailers against Berkey, D-Everett.
The largest contributors to 2nd Defense, formed to help defend 2nd District state Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Roy, from a challenge by JT Wilcox, are the PACs associated with the State Labor Council, the Washington State Council of Firefighters and the Washington Federation of State Employees, among others.
Federation of State Employees executive director Greg Devereux said he was among the decision makers who agreed to move money left over from attacks on Wilcox into the two PACs that were about to go after Berkey, Cut Taxes PAC and Conservative PAC.
But Devereux distanced himself from the strategy used against Berkey. He said it was a surprise that Moxie Media’s mailers hit Berkey on her votes for the very taxes unions like his had supported.
“We advocated, supported raising taxes, and then to double back on that – I don’t think we’d engage in that again,” Devereux said.
The mailers to Republicans hit Berkey from the right and praised her conservative opponent, Rod Rieger, even though the unions’ favored candidate, Nick Harper, is to Berkey’s left. Berkey’s third-place showing behind Harper and Rieger knocked her out of the race.
“Not everybody knew exactly what was being put forward in the tactics,” Devereux said. “I think it got very confusing.”
The firefighters council says it was never on board with sending money to defeat Berkey. The group has supported Berkey, said Greg Markley, secretary-treasurer of the labor group.
Sometime in August, the firefighters group found out that money from 2nd Defense was slated to go to pay for the pieces against Berkey, and told Moxie Media “we’re not interested in that,” Markley said.
That may be the reason the money didn’t come from 2nd Defense in the end. Moxie couldn’t get groups to agree, and now is footing the $9,000 bill by itself.
“I had to eat it,” MacLean said.
So none of her clients is paying her back? “No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” said MacLean, sounding a little tired of what she calls “conspiracy theories.”
Her flat denial includes any connection between the mailers and $26,000 in consulting fees paid to Moxie by unions and lawyers’ groups through a committee called Forward PAC. (MacLean won’t say what those payments are for, but said they’re not for a specific campaign, and points out they were made much earlier in the campaign.)
Alex Hays, a Republican political consultant working for Wilcox, says he believes Forward PAC or some other group is paying Moxie, which then pays the bill itself.
“All that does is serve to hide the actual source of the money. So in this respect I think the cover-up is becoming worse than the crime,” Wilcox said.
Berkey said in her complaint to the Public Disclosure Commission that the lack of reported contributions by Conservative PAC and Cut Taxes PAC were intentionally deceptive, to hide Big Labor’s involvement.
Talmadge said MacLean or any group that planned to pay for the ads should have been identified to voters. Whoever pays “has the obligation first of all to say it was you that paid for it, not the phony organization that you just cooked up,” he said.
State law requires the true contributors behind campaign advertisements to be disclosed in ads, although the Public Disclosure Commission has interpreted that to allow TV ads in 2006, for example, to disclose only the names of PACs without revealing their funding sources in the Building Industry Association of Washington.
Moxie’s mailers may be seen as different because voters couldn’t go online and find out who was funding them, as they could with the BIAW ads. But MacLean said even she didn’t know who would end up paying for the ads.
“There’s like a gajillion different people involved,” she said. “It’s very hard, especially on an accelerated timeline, to get clear decision-making over who can do what with what money.”