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News / Northwest

Why one man filed 800 campaign finance complaints against WA candidates

PDC leadership has acknowledged they can do a better job of helping campaigns follow the law

By Jim Brunner, The Seattle Times
Published: May 12, 2024, 6:05am

Over the past several months, Washington’s campaign-finance watchdog agency has been flooded with hundreds of complaints against political campaigns — a deluge driven largely by one person.

Conner Edwards, a 31-year-old recent law school graduate, has filed more than 800 complaints with the Public Disclosure Commission against candidates and political committees since late last year.

Edwards, who has worked as a campaign treasurer for mostly Republican candidates, says his crusade has a simple justification: “The PDC has not been doing their job.”

Despite Washington’s shiny image as a leader in political-money transparency, he says the PDC is failing to crack down when campaigns don’t file important reports detailing who is giving them money and how it’s being spent.

Hundreds of candidates and committees have blown past deadlines set by state law for reporting such details, he says — with zero action taken by the PDC before his complaints.

“They have not been enforcing the single most important requirement in their purview — they have been looking the other way,” Edwards said.

The staff at the PDC defended its work and says Edwards is making a mountainous caseload for the agency over a relative molehill of offenses by mostly small-dollar campaigns.

“We are at unprecedented case volume. It is an issue for us,” said Kim Bradford, the PDC’s deputy director, in an interview.

Of the 580 campaigns the PDC currently has open campaign-finance cases against, about 515 stem from complaints filed by Edwards, according to Bradford.

Peter Lavallee, the PDC’s executive director, compared the situation to the Washington State Patrol being forced by a citizen complaint to investigate hundreds of motorists that troopers had clocked going 61 mph or 62 mph in a 60 mph zone, but didn’t pull over.

“That’s essentially where we find ourselves,” Lavallee said at a recent commission meeting. “The question is who prioritizes our very limited resources. Is it this a commission that the people set up? Or is it a couple individuals who take the time to file hundreds of complaints because they have a different priority system?”

At the same meeting, Bradford said some of the campaigns targeted by Edwards raised little or no money and had minimal reporting obligations.

“Only half the story”

The PDC, created by a citizen initiative in 1972, has a staff of about 30 and a $6 million annual budget. The agency is overseen by a five-member citizen commission whose members are picked by the governor and are subject to confirmation by the state Senate.

The commission enforces the state’s campaign-finance transparency laws and publishes financial disclosures by lobbyists, elected officials and candidates. It receives more than 90,000 such reports each year.

Edwards pushes back on the PDC’s characterization of his complaints, and Lavallee’s speeding ticket analogy.

While it’s true that some of his complaints are hitting small-time and low-dollar candidates, the staff “were telling you only half of the story,” he wrote in a recent email to PDC commissioners.

“They did not tell you that many of the respondents that I filed complaints against only filed their required disclosures after election day. They did not tell you that many … had significant levels of activity that were not timely disclosed. They artfully glossed over the fact that — if not for the complaints that I filed — the agency would have taken absolutely no action to hold these candidates/committees accountable for their violations of state law,” he said.

The Federal Election Commission and states, including Idaho and Oregon, proactively enforce deadlines and issue fines for tardy campaign reports and other violations, Edwards noted.

A complaint he filed last October listed 314 candidates for election in Washington in 2023 who failed to file required reports on their donations and spending, with no PDC action.

While many of the campaigns he’s complained about are small-time operations with little money raised, others have had more significant spending.

For example, Edwards points to Cindy Gobel, a candidate for Snohomish County auditor last year, who failed to file a required report detailing nearly $23,000 in campaign spending on radio ads and mailings.

The filing was due seven days before the Nov. 7 general election — a deadline meant to give the public a chance to see such information before voting. Gobel filed the required report on Dec. 4, only after Edwards filed a PDC complaint.

Gobel, whose campaign raised about $100,000 in total, including $75,000 of her own money, acknowledged the violation and agreed last month to pay a $150 fine to the PDC. She received about 40% of the vote, losing to incumbent auditor Garth Fell.

In another example, a PAC backing Spokane-area school levies failed to disclose details about nearly $42,000 in contributions before a February special election asking voters to approve more money for schools.

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After Edwards filed a complaint, Central Valley Citizens for Education submitted dozens of late reports detailing its spending and donations, but only after the election.

The PDC last week fined the PAC $1,000, with $500 of that suspended.

An apology and a curse

In his complaints, Edwards includes a note apologizing to candidates and political committees “for any inconvenience caused.” He points out his intention is to get the PDC to adopt more automatic reminders and enforcement instead of waiting for complaints before taking action.

Still, the subjects of his complaints have not always appreciated his work.

One candidate fumed at Edwards, calling him a “cuck” in a Facebook message.

“I will place a curse upon you when the next full moon rises and is most powerful,” Hunter Henderson, a 2023 candidate for the Tacoma City Council, wrote in the message.

After that initial outburst, Edwards says he and Henderson had “a really productive and friendly conversation.” Henderson lost in the primary and his campaign reported no donations.

Edwards says he doesn’t see ill intent from Henderson, or Gobel — or the bulk of the candidates and groups he’s reporting. Campaign-finance reporting can be tricky, especially for first-time or inexperienced candidates.

Still, he says the PDC shouldn’t let candidates flout the law without doing anything. And without investigating more campaigns, he says the agency can’t even really know the full extent of how much information is being withheld from the public.

If the PDC isn’t going to fully enforce the law, or considers some of the reports insignificant, maybe it should consider cutting the number of reports campaigns need to file, Edwards says.

Steps to get campaigns into compliance

Notwithstanding its objections to Edwards’ tactics, PDC leadership has acknowledged they can do a better job of helping campaigns follow the law.

The agency is developing automated reminders to send to campaigns this year about certain key deadlines, and to alert them if they fall out of compliance. After evaluating how that goes, the PDC may look next year at automatic notices of violations.

Nancy Isserlis, a Spokane attorney and the PDC chair, said the agency’s goal is to get political campaigns into compliance, not go out and slam small campaigns, which often have no paid staff, for minor violations.

“I can’t speak for every commissioner, but as a group, I believe we hold the value that we should not punish people into compliance with overreaching penalties. We value timely reporting and compliance, and use our enforcement powers to accomplish that end,” Isserlis said in an email.

Meanwhile, the agency is churning through the hundreds of complaints from Edwards, some of which have targeted campaigns from as far back as 2019.

At a PDC enforcement hearing last week, 55 candidates for offices including city councils, school boards and fire commissions copped to the reporting violations cited in Edwards’ complaints.

David Tobin, who was elected to the Pacific County Commission, apologized for his oversight, and told the commission it was his first time running for elected office. He received only one donation — a $500 contribution from the local Democratic Party — and spent $1,600 of his own money on a filing fee and yard signs.

The PDC fined him $150, with all but $25 suspended.

“I think I was very unfamiliar with all of the processes that go into it. That’s no excuse. I should have done better. I will do better in the future,” Tobin said.

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