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News / Northwest

Complaint pushes for Ferguson to reveal donors of $1.2M in campaign transfers

AG Ferguson moved the “surplus” donations to his gubernatorial campaign before a state watchdog closed a loophole that allowed donors to exceed contribution limits in the race.

By JERRY CORNFIELD, Washington State Standard
Published: July 11, 2023, 10:23am

Attorney General Bob Ferguson is facing further scrutiny over his shifting of $1.2 million of contributions from past campaigns into the account for his 2024 bid for governor.

A complaint filed last month contends the individual donors of those contributions must be identified and their past donations – originally for Ferguson’s re-election and now considered “surplus” funds – should count toward contribution limits in his campaign for governor.

Absent such transparency, it is likely some individuals or groups have now exceeded contribution limits for his new endeavor, argued Tallman Trask, the Seattle attorney who filed the complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission on June 27.

“There’s no way to know,” Trask said.

This is the second complaint regarding Ferguson’s handling of the money. The first, filed in May,  continues to be investigated.

Both raise the question of whether Ferguson must abide by recent commission actions to require greater disclosure of the source of surplus funds.

Candidates can make transfers from such funds into a campaign for a new office in a lump sum with permission from each affected donor. However, until recently, they did not have to disclose the names of those donors or the amount they gave. This created a potential for individuals and groups to give a maximum contribution to two campaigns – the old one and the new one.

Closing a loophole

In April, the commission was pressed to end the practice with signs Gov. Jay Inslee wouldn’t run again and Ferguson, with more than $2 million banked from running for attorney general, would.

On April 27, commissioners considered a request from Trask to require greater disclosure and on May 11 they approved new guidance requiring candidates to identify the donors and treat their contributions as if they are for the candidate’s new campaign, making them subject to disclosure and contribution limits for the race.

“We respect the PDC’s decision today to change that guidance, and look forward to following the new rules going forward,” Ferguson said in a statement on May 11.

By then, Ferguson had moved $1.18 million through a series of six transfers between April 28 and May 10, Trask wrote in his complaint.

“Each of these transfers was made without full disclosure. The transfers were made in bulk without attribution to individual contributors, and without disclosure of individual contribution amounts,” Trask wrote.

As of Saturday, Ferguson reported $3 million in his campaign account. The total includes the transferred dollars.

Following the rules

The May complaint cited news coverage of the timing of the transfers, prompting questions on whether the guidance applied retroactively.

Zachary Pekelis, Ferguson’s lawyer, argued in a June 9 response to that complaint that his client followed the rules in place at the time of the transfers and retroactively enforcing the new guidance would be a “bait-and-switch.”

“If campaigns understand that they may be penalized despite their strict compliance with existing Commission guidance published on its website, they will have little reason to follow it going forward,” he wrote.

Ferguson and his campaign declined to comment on the new complaint.

Trask contends that retroactive enforcement of the campaign finance rules is not an issue.

Commissioners, when adopting the guidance, said “the law itself has not changed nor has its meaning,” he wrote. “There is no retroactivity issue because candidates and committees were subject to the same legal requirements prior to the new interpretation.”

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Commission staff are assessing the facts of each complaint.In the meantime, commissioners could act this month in a separate case centering on a backward-looking application of the updated guidance. That one focuses on transfers made into a Spokane City Council member’s 2021 campaign. PDC staff did not recommend a penalty or remedial action such as disclosing the donors.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.