Public Disclosure Commission keeps working to inform voters

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Tips for using the PDC’s website

For information on a candidate, select “Search the database” from the top menu, and select “Candidates” from the drop-down list. Choose the type of candidate you’re looking for. A table with candidate information should appear. Click on the headers (Name, Office, etc.) to change the order of information. After you find the candidate, choose “Details” (to the left of the name) to see a list of contributors.

For info on a ballot measure, select “Search the database” again, and select “Committees” from the drop-down list. Next, select “Initiative.” A table with ballot measure information should appear. You will need to know the name of the group supporting or opposing the ballot measure, because the committee names do not always include the ballot measure number.

To access money maps, go to the “Public Resources” tab at the top of the page, and select the map of your choice.

OLYMPIA — Need to know how much Bill Gates gave to the charter school effort? Curious who has raised the most money in the race for governor? No problem. All this information is available on the state's Public Disclosure Commission website.

Thus far in 2012, contributors have given nearly $66 million to various campaigns in the state (not including federal offices). At this rate, the contributions may surpass those of 2008, which totaled $131 million.

The PDC was created under Initiative 276, which passed in 1972. The purpose of the commission is to give public access to political information, namely campaign contributions and lobbyist expenditures. People can also file complaints with the PDC if they believe a candidate or group is not following regulations.

Lori Anderson, the PDC's communications and training officer, said the website's most popular feature is the searchable database. The database, which is compiled from campaign reports filed by candidates or their repre

sentatives, contains nearly everything one could hope to know about the funding, spending and debt of various campaigns.

The newest additions to the site are maps showing where donors are located, and charts displaying the types of contributors giving to campaigns. The graphics are sometimes overlooked, Anderson said. This is unfortunate, because they contain a lot of data. The maps tell a story, she added.

Anderson said the PDC is looking to expand its lobbying data to make it as accessible to the public as campaign contribution totals. Right now, all lobbying information is available on the commission's website, but much of it is in individual reports. If the Legislature passes a law requiring all lobbyists to file reports electronically, the commission will likely be able to create a searchable database containing the information.

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said he's introduced a bill to establish this requirement nearly every biennium since 2003. While the bills have never made it out of the House, Moeller plans to introduce another such bill in January (which will also include a fee system for all those required to report to the PDC), which he hopes will fare better.

Moeller said a searchable database that tracks lobbying dollars is crucial to transparency in state government. Lobbyists spend $68 million each year. Finding out where those dollars go, or which legislator's lunch they're buying, is tedious with the PDC's current system, he said.

Moeller said other changes need to be made. The PDC hasn't always been effective in aspects of enforcement, he said. In fact, he's even heard candidates say it's worth it to break the commission's rules, reap the political benefits and pay the fine. This is wrong, Moeller said.

"Honestly, we probably have one of the very best and most transparent election systems in the nation," he said. "I think it's worked very well; it just needs some updating."

Anderson said a law sponsored by Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, last year has put a stop to purposeful violations of the commission's rules.

"I think there have been a few people that thought the reward was worth the risk in the past, but … I think with the new penalty authority, that's going by the wayside," she said.

The new bill, which went into effect Jan. 1, makes some violations criminal offenses, and raises the maximum fine to $10,000. The commission has not seen any complaints fully play out this year, Anderson said.

Good voter resource

While those who work in politics and media are likely the ones using the PDC's site most often, Anderson said the commission's website can also be a good voter resource. Voters can use it to discover which individuals or groups are financially backing candidates and ballot measures, she said.

"Myself as a voter, I see — I get all these conflicting messages about a particular candidate or a particular ballot measure, and I think, 'How do I straighten that out?'" she said. "And one way is that I can come to the PDC's website, and I can see who's funding these campaigns."

Most people read about the PDC in two ways, she said. They either read newspapers articles on campaign funds raised and spent, or when disciplinary action is taken against candidates or groups that have failed to release necessary information.

"Our big job is just to collect this data, assimilate it somehow that makes sense to you and everyone else who wants to look at it, and then, when we don't get the data that we need, act like a court, if you will," she said.

Joel Graves, a Burien resident and volunteer for the state's Republican Party, said he has used the PDC site regularly for about a year. In April, he filed a complaint against Lt. Gov. Brad Owen. Graves said Owen, a Democrat, didn't correctly report contributions to his campaign.

After Graves filed his complaint with the PDC, he said the commission responded very quickly. About one month later, Graves received a letter from the PDC. The official investigation into Owen's reports had begun, it said. Though the matter is still not resolved, the interaction was enough for Graves to form an opinion about the commission.

"The PDC has a couple of shining stars that I talk to almost exclusively," he said.

While these staff members are very helpful, Graves said some of the other employees seem to lack experience and expediency. He tries to avoid working with these less-experienced workers, he said.

Graves, who is also a political consultant for Olympia-based Polis Political Services, said he's found the PDC's website to be very useful — once he figured out how to navigate it.

"If I were to go to the PDC site for the first time, it might be more difficult, but once you know your way around, it's easier to find what you're looking for," he said.

Graves said many of his colleagues share this sentiment. But those out of the political loop are less likely to know how to use the PDC's site, or even know that the commission exists, he said.

"I don't know anyone who goes on the PDC site for fun or to keep politicians accountable," he said. "I think the PDC can do a better job with outreach."

By the way, Gates has given $1 million to Yes On 1240 WA Coalition For Public Charter Schools. McKenna has raised $7,412,104.10 in his bid for governor, and Inslee has raised $7,057,830.66.

Anna Marum: 360-754-5427; http://twitter.com/col_Olympia.