What happened to Sen. Jean Berkey of Everett last campaign season cries out for a change in state law to ensure that there is more transparency among campaign finance reporting in this state.
It’s time to put an abrupt end to the practice of obscuring the true source of campaign cash.
First, a little history.
Liberal Democrats had targeted Berkey — one of their own — for defeat. She simply was too conservative for their liking.
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But the election lineup last summer made it look like Berkey would easily finish first or second in a three-person race. The question for the liberal Democrats was how to bump Berkey to a third-place finish and deny her a spot on the November general election ballot.
The strategy was to continue to support their chosen candidate — Nick Harper — but boost conservative candidate Rod Rieger into second place. It was a clever strategy, but a difficult one to achieve because Rieger wasn’t even campaigning.
Lisa MacLean of Moxie Media in Seattle led the liberal Democrats’ effort. She used the common practice of setting up multiple political action committees to collect money from big donors such as labor unions, then shuffled the money among committees before using the money to support the favored candidates.
By shuffling money between PACs, it was easy to hide the true source of the original funds.
Those who ascribe to this deceitful practice count on the fact that in the heat a campaign and with PDC reporting deadlines, the original source of funding won’t be known until after the election. In this case, MacLean promised her labor union clients they would not be tied to the effort to unseat Berkey until after the primary election.
That’s precisely what happened. And the Moxie Media strategy worked exactly as drawn up. Harper finished first, and Rieger second just 122 votes ahead of Berkey. Her re-election bid was over in the primary election. Harper went on to win the general election and in a close vote — 23-18 — senators opted to go ahead and seat Harper as a Democratic senator, despite the unsavory election practice.
Attorney General Rob McKenna has sued Moxie Media, accusing the firm and founder MacLean of violating state campaign finance law in the process of hiding its spending on the conservative candidate from voters.
It’s up to lawmakers to close the campaign finance loophole that allowed the shuffling of money among PACs.
Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, introduced Senate Bill 5021 which provides that no two political action committees may have the same name. The proposal establishes the presumption that anyone creating more than two political action committees is doing so for the purpose of concealing the identity of donors.
The draft proposal also would prohibit committee-to-committee transfers of contributions, except among political parties or party caucus groups, and would lower the monetary threshold amounts at which donor names must be reported. The bill also enacts harsher criminal and civil punishments for violators of state public disclosure laws.
The bill may need some fine tuning before final passage, but it’s a step forward.
“Citizens should not need training from Sherlock Holmes in order to decipher who is serving up campaign propaganda and trying to influence their vote,” said Craig Salins, executive director of Washington Public Campaigns, a statewide organization that advocates for fair elections.
“While the Moxie Media case is a high-profile example and clearly the most egregious example, it is far from the only one,” Pridemore said.
Labor Council President Jeff Johnson said his organization likely will support Pridemore’s bill and said secretly attacking a candidate over positions the council shares was a mistake. “That will never happen again,” he said.
The Legislature must move to ensure that campaign disclosure laws are clear and precise and end the practice of hiding the true source of donors. Pridemore’s bill starts the conversation and moves the Legislature in the right direction.