Open government can be messy. It also can be costly and time-consuming, as growing issues surrounding Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission have demonstrated. And yet, to borrow a meme, the value of transparent governance: priceless.
Last week, Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, was ordered to pay $6,470 in fines for failing to report some campaign donations and expenditures during the 2016 election cycle. Chopp must pay $3,480 upfront, with the rest of the penalty being suspended for four years, barring no additional violations.
The fine was the result of an investigation following a complaint from conservative activist Glen Morgan, who in recent months has filed more than 40 campaign finance complaints with the commission. Some of these appear to be little more than partisan mudslinging. One of the complaints was against state Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, for, among other things, misspelling the name of the Washington State Historical Society on a filing, an error that technically rendered the document inaccurate.
Complaints of campaign violations go to the state attorney general’s office, which has 45 days to respond. If the office does not pursue litigation, the citizen who complained may file suit against the alleged violator.
This can be messy, and other complaints from various sources have appeared to be little more than a nuisance to the attorney general and his staff. Last fall, according to The (Tacoma) News Tribune, Audubon Washington was 62 days late in disclosing a payment of $342.91 to its executive director for production of a video. This complaint required two senior assistant attorneys general to ferret out the facts, which resulted in a sanction of $3,740.
In an age of gotcha politics, sifting through disclosure filings has become a favorite pastime of political operatives on both sides of the aisle. Accusing an opponent of a campaign violation can help to discredit that opponent; if the claim is proven correct, so much the better for those who are lobbing the salvos.
Yet while these apparent abuses of the system can be aggravating, they are a small price to pay for ensuring that government officials and elections are open and aboveboard. Rather than suggesting that citizens should temper their complaints when they perceive a violation, the onus must be upon elected officials and those running for office to ensure that all their i’s are dotted and their t’s are crossed.
The public’s power to hold officials accountable must be the overriding concern, regardless of how petty or specious some complaints might appear. Evelyn Fielding Lopez, executive director of the Public Disclosure Commission, told The News Tribune that she would favor a triage system in which the PDC filters minor infractions from more serious allegations. Such a system, however, would inevitably become politicized, with one party claiming that the other is receiving favorable treatment.
Indeed, some infractions are more serious than others. But in the end, it should remain up to the state attorney general’s office to assess the appropriate punishment, and then it should be up to the public to determine the seriousness of the infraction. If an elected official violates campaign rules, he or she will face retribution in the form of fines and, perhaps, at the ballot box.
Expecting officials to adhere to the letter of the law when it comes to disclosure filings is simply part of the lovable mess that is democracy.