With a unanimous vote, the state Senate has passed a much-needed bill to tighten campaign-finance regulations and increase criminal sanctions and fines up to $10,000 for serious violations.
Last fall’s dirty tricks in an Everett Senate race created a strong case for campaign-finance reform. The House might want to add provisions to Senate Bill 5021, but lawmakers must not let this opportunity for meaningful reform slip through their fingers.
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.
Sen. Jean Berkey, a Democrat from Everett, was the victim. Liberal Democrats had targeted Berkey – one of their own – for defeat. She simply was too conservative for their liking.
To boost the chances of the Democrats’ favored candidate – Nick Harper – the Democrats supported the campaign of conservative candidate Rod Rieger. The strategy worked. Harper and Rieger got the most votes in the August primary election, casting Berkey aside. Harper, a Democrat from Everett, emerged victorious in November and sits in Berkey’s old Senate seat.
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. 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 that’s precisely why changes in campaign-finance laws are warranted.
Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, introduced SB 5021 to limit transfers of cash from one PAC to another. Pridemore said his bill, which has gone through several rewrites, will “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,” he said. “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.”
Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, said the measure is “an even-handed approach to improving disclosure” and improving enforcement.
The bill passed the Senate 46-0.
As it stands, SB 5021 would:
• Require that a PAC have 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.
• Make intentional violations a misdemeanor and make false or forged filings a felony.
The criminal sanctions are limited to wrongful acts that are intentional, as spelled out in 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.
While the attorney general pursues legal action against Moxie Media, it’s incumbent upon lawmakers to put strong safeguards in place to ensure open and transparent financing in political campaigns.