Politics & Government

Puyallup lawmaker fights 44 ethics violations at hearing over Facebook posts

State Rep. Melanie Stambaugh, R-Puyallup, is accused of violating legislative ethics rules 44 times by posting videos and photos produced by state employees on her campaign Facebook page. She fought the alleged violations at a public hearing on Tuesday, and says the state’s Legislative Ethics Board isn’t keeping up to date with the way people use technology.
State Rep. Melanie Stambaugh, R-Puyallup, is accused of violating legislative ethics rules 44 times by posting videos and photos produced by state employees on her campaign Facebook page. She fought the alleged violations at a public hearing on Tuesday, and says the state’s Legislative Ethics Board isn’t keeping up to date with the way people use technology.

Some of Washington’s ethics rules don’t reflect advancements in technology, a Puyallup lawmaker told a state board Tuesday.

State Rep. Melanie Stambaugh and her lawyer appeared before the state Legislative Ethics Board to dispute findings that she violated ethics rules 44 times by posting state-funded photos and videos to the Facebook page she used during her campaign.

It was the state’s first legislative ethics hearing in 22 years.

The board’s interpretation of a 1994 state ethics law says lawmakers are prohibited from embedding state-produced videos on campaign websites, though they are allowed to post links to the videos that direct visitors to another site.

The rule is intended to maintain access to public records while blocking the use of state resources in campaigns.

But Stambaugh, 26, says the videos and photos are public records available on websites like YouTube and Flickr that anyone, including her, should be able to utilize freely. She also argued — and demonstrated at the hearing — it’s not possible to link to a video without embedding it on certain social media sites, including Twitter’s mobile phone platform.

That means Stambaugh would be banned from posting some public records to certain social media sites, violating her First Amendment rights, Stambaugh’s lawyer Nick Power argued.

“How many platforms do you get pushed off by the rule and what are the available methods of communications?” Power said at the hearing.

The videos in question are periodic updates about Stambaugh’s work in Olympia that legislative staff produced during the 2015 and 2016 session. Stambaugh, a Republican, said she posted them while the Legislature was in session.

Stambaugh is asking the board to dismiss the complaints and to reconsider how it regulates use of legislative photos and videos on Facebook.

In 2014, Stambaugh became the youngest woman to be elected to the Legislature in nearly 80 years.

She said Tuesday she knows how technology is “rapidly changing” and tries to use it to inform people in her district. She compared her Facebook page to a journal and said it wasn’t exclusively a campaign website.

“I believe (social media) is the most instantaneous way to receive feedback from constituents,” she said.

Chad Standifer, a state assistant attorney general representing the Ethics Board staff in the hearing, argued the the board is not tasked with determining questions of constitutionality, and said Stambaugh had broken the board’s rule.

“When a member has a campaign website and uses state facilities on that website, a violation has occurred,” Standifer said.

Standifer also questioned Stambaugh on why she didn’t have a separate Facebook page for campaign use, rather than mix campaign and legislative updates on one.

State Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, testified at the hearing that lawmakers can reach more people by consolidating their communications on one Facebook or Twitter profile. He defended Stambaugh’s Facebook posts, saying many other House Republicans have embedded similar legislative material on social media.

The nine-member Ethics Board is made up of four state lawmakers and five private citizens.

The maximum fine for each of the 44 violations is $5,000, although the board’s chairman, Kenny Pittman, has said it’s unlikely Stambaugh would pay the maximum of $220,000 even if found guilty on all counts.

Board members will make a final determination on the issue, and on whether Stambaugh should face any penalties, at a later date. Any decision will come after the lawyers for both sides submit written closing statements, which are required by Dec. 23.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein

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