Politics & Government

Rossi cleared by election panel

Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi speaks to a crowd of supporters at the Mason County Senior Center in Shelton.  (Olympian File Photo)
Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi speaks to a crowd of supporters at the Mason County Senior Center in Shelton. (Olympian File Photo) The Olympian

The state Public Disclosure Commission closed its books Thursday on a fundraising complaint against Dino Rossi in his failed 2008 gubernatorial race. It removed one possible cloud over the Republican, who is being courted nationally to run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray this fall.

The PDC complaint specifically dealt with Rossi’s conversations with builders about fundraising early in 2007. Rossi admitted to investigators that he made efforts to patch up relations between his eventual benefactor – the Building Industry Association of Washington – and local builder groups that were discussing whether to cooperate on campaign funding efforts in the fall 2008 races.

The PDC found after a year’s investigation and looking at thousands of pages of documents that there was no evidence Rossi ever solicited cash from the 11 groups that ultimately gave money to BIAW to help his eventual campaign. The one group with which he specifically discussed the BIAW plan for raising money for the governor’s race – the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties – did not donate to the BIAW fund.

The vote was 3-1 to drop the case. Seattle Democrat Jane Noland voted against recommending that the attorney general not proceed further in the case, but she declined to talk about her reasons.

“I’m done with it,” Rossi said Thursday. “It was a phony lawsuit like the lawsuit against Mike McGavick (in the 2006 Senate race) to try to raise flags during a major election race.”

Rossi said it shows what he had said all along about the efforts by two former state Supreme Court justices and a Seattle activist lawyer to raise questions about the builders’ fundraising in the governor’s race. He was referring to lawyers Knoll Lowney and Mike Withey, who deposed him in October 2008 in the case, as well as Democrats.

“It’s a sleazy game they play,” he said.

The PDC has one other staff-generated complaint, however, that alleges coordination with state Realtors, including ads that showed him talking to the group. And the Attorney General’s Office is still in court with the BIAW over a complaint from Lowney and the justices that the BIAW illegally concealed about $600,000 it raised from local builders, disclosing it a year late.

Whatever happens, Rossi might not be done with politics. He was in Washington, D.C., this week to meet with Republican National Committee leader Michael Steele and top senators recruiting candidates.

“I’m talking to people. … They’ve been talking to me,” Rossi said. “They are trying to lay out a scenario in which I’d want to do something political. … I have not made a decision. I’m listening to their stories.”

State Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser said it makes sense for Rossi to entertain offers, with some Republican polling by Moore Information and Rasmussen Research showing him ahead of Murray, a three-term Democrat whose role in approving bank bailouts and the federal stimulus might anger independent voters courted by the GOP.

“He’d be a very formidable candidate,” Esser said.

But Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz said a poll of 600 voters done March 22-24 by Research 2000 found otherwise. It showed Murray beating Rossi by 52 percent to 41 percent, with a 4 percent margin of error.

Other polls show a plurality of Americans favor the health care reform that President Barack Obama signed into law, which Pelz said is a reflection of Democrats showing they can govern.

“The premise that 2010 is going to be a banner year for Republicans like Dino Rossi is predicated on the notion that Democrats were not governing in Washington, D.C.,” Pelz asserted.

“We don’t see the candidate out there that challenges Murray yet, and we don’t think Dino Rossi is that candidate,” he said.

Left-of-center activists with the Fuse group, which played a role in publicizing Lowney’s lawsuit in 2008, say the PDC report does not fully clear Rossi and casts questions about his honesty.

Fuse’s Aaron Ostrom said the only reason Rossi isn’t in trouble is that after talking to Doug Barnes of the King-Snohomish builders group in early 2007 about the BIAW’s secret campaign plan to support small-business advocates in the campaign, Rossi never received support from the group.

Ultimately, the BIAW put some $6.9 million into third-party advertising efforts attacking Gov. Chris Gregoire and promoting Rossi in what was the most expensive race in state history – drawing $44.6 million in spending by candidates and outside groups.

The PDC vote ends the matter with the government – unless Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna’s office decides to ignore the recommendation.

However, Lowney’s related lawsuit is pending in King County Superior Court, and it could place scrutiny on things the PDC did not consider. For instance, the PDC did not look at whether Rossi’s discussions with the King-Snohomish builders led to donations the group made to the Republican Governors Association on Rossi’s behalf.

McKenna’s office separately is battling with the BIAW over its concealment of contributions received from the local builder groups, using money the locals received from higher-than-expected rebates from participating in a worker-insurance safety program.

That BIAW case is headed to trial after builders rejected McKenna’s offer to settle for $900,000. The BIAW has described the offer as political extortion and accused McKenna, a former ally, of using the case to build his political future, which could include a run for governor.