In the news

News Tribune (Tacoma)
Peter Callaghan

About 10 minutes.

An hour at most.

That’s how long it would take even a marginally skilled political operative to circumvent the new campaign finance rules contained in Senate Bill 5021.

The bill began life as the Legislature’s response to disgust over a pair of especially sleazy tactics used in the 2010 campaign.

One happened in Everett when a batch of liberal special interests created a stealth campaign to defeat a Democrat deemed not liberal enough. It worked, leading to charges against Moxie Media and its main principal, Lisa Collins MacLean, for failing to file campaign finance reports on time.

The second episode involved a local branch of a national Republican effort to defeat Democrats. It too skirted campaign finance disclosure laws to make sure no one knew the source of the attacks until the election was long over. Americans for Prosperity took down a few state Senate incumbents and is currently being investigated by the Public Disclosure Commission. Its director, Kirby Wilbur, has since been elected chairman of the state Republican Party.

While arguing that Nick Harper – the beneficiary of Moxie Media’s campaign – should be allowed to take his seat, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown promised a tough new law. The Vancouver Democrat charged with that task was realistic about the challenge.

“Alas, whenever you have regulations put into place and a great deal of money involved, you will have people who will spend a great deal of time trying to avoid those regulations,” Sen. Craig Pridemore told his Government Operations Committee when it took up the bill.

“As they go forward and find loopholes in our existing system, it is our duty to move forward and close those loopholes.”

Pridemore’s original bill at least presented a challenge. But it was weakened at every stop it made in the Senate and House.

For example, Pridemore wanted to restrict, if not ban, the transfer of money from one political action committee to another. That is how Moxie Media hid the actual backers of the effort to help a conservative draw away votes from incumbent Sen. Jean Berkey, pushing her into a third-place primary finish and elimination. MacLean created dozens of committees with pleasant sounding names to shuffle money from labor and trial lawyers among them, making it nearly impossible to detect the actual source of funding.

But SB 5021 has now been weakened so that rather than banning transfers, it allows them as long as the donating committee has at least 10 members who have donated at least $10.

A pro like MacLean could put together such committees in 10 minutes. Someone less skilled might consume a whole hour. That’s what now passes for “a great deal of time.”

Steve Breaux works for the Washington Public Interest Research Group but has run campaigns and is a former Senate Democratic staff member. He has been pushing for a tough bill and thinks SB 5021 should be adopted.

But he is under no illusions that it is a tough response to Moxie and AFP.

“It is now a baby step in the right direction,” Breaux said. “Anyone involved in Washington state politics can easily find 10 registered voters with 10 bucks in their pocket.

“It’s no hurdle at all. It’s a huge loophole.”

The original bill also tried to end the practice of using apple-pie committee names to disguise the intent of the sponsors. That too has been weakened.

There are positives in the bill, including the reduction in thresholds for when sponsors of campaign ads, mail or phone calls need to report to the PDC and an uptick in fines. It also creates criminal penalties for the most blatant violations.

But the best evidence that SB 5021 won’t really rattle the cages of those who help elect and defeat politicians is in the vote totals – not a single House member or senator voted no.

Said Breaux: “You’ll see a whole bunch of people patting themselves on the back for campaign finance reform when they didn’t do all that much.”

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