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News / Politics / Election

Washington AG Bob Ferguson faces ethics complaint in ‘three Bobs’ saga

By Jim Brunner and Claire Withycombe, The Seattle Times
Published: May 29, 2024, 4:21pm

OLYMPIA — Gubernatorial candidate Mark Mullet has filed a pair of complaints alleging that Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson violated the state bar code and ethics laws when he asked the secretary of state to rearrange the primary ballot to clear up confusion after two other people named Bob Ferguson filed to run for governor.

The move was blasted by the attorney general’s campaign as an act of desperation by Mullet, a Democratic state senator from Issaquah, who has trailed badly in polling behind Ferguson and Republican Dave Reichert as the Aug. 6 primary election season gets underway.

It’s the latest chapter in the saga of the “three Bobs,” which has cast a long shadow even after the two imitator Bobs quickly withdrew from the race under the threat of potential felony prosecution for the election-year stunt organized by a conservative activist.

While that seemed to end the controversy, Mullet contends Ferguson abused his power when he asked Secretary of State Steve Hobbs to reorder the ballot if the other “Bobs” insisted on remaining in the primary race.

In a complaint filed Tuesday with the Washington State Bar Association, Mullet alleged Ferguson violated the bar’s rules against conflicts of interest by pressing Hobbs in a May 13 phone call to rearrange the ballot so he’d be listed immediately before the other Bob Fergusons.

Mullet filed a similar complaint with the state executive ethics board, after first trying to file it with the state Public Disclosure Commission, which swiftly rejected it as not within the campaign-finance agency’s jurisdiction.

While Mullet had denounced the “three Bobs” stunt as unethical gamesmanship by conservative activist Glen Morgan, he said that didn’t justify Ferguson’s request to rearrange the ballot, which Hobbs rejected as not allowable under state law.

“My wife and I tell our six kids every day, two wrongs don’t make a right,” Mullet said in an interview Wednesday, accusing Ferguson of abusing his authority as attorney general “to benefit him politically.”

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In a news release announcing the complaints, Mullet compared Ferguson’s phone call with Hobbs to then-President Donald Trump’s infamous 2020 call to the Georgia secretary of state asking him to “find” more votes to change the state’s election results.

Ferguson’s campaign ridiculed the Mullet complaints as a last-ditch ploy of a struggling candidate.

“We understand Mark’s campaign is increasingly desperate for attention. He’s polling at four percent and his campaign is broke,” said Bayley Burgess, Ferguson’s campaign manager, in a text. “These complaints are frivolous and we look forward to them being dismissed.”

The secretary of state uses a random drawing process specified by state law to determine the order in which candidates are listed on the ballot. Ferguson — the attorney general — had been slated to appear 13th on the ballot, while the other two men who share his name had the second- and third-place spots.

On May 13, a lawyer for the Ferguson campaign asked Hobbs to list the candidates’ occupations on the ballot in order to distinguish the three Bobs from one another — a remedy allowed under state law.

The lawyer, Zachary Pekelis, also asked for the additional step of reordering the ballot. While that remedy is not mentioned in the law, Pekelis, in a May 13 letter to Hobbs cited a state administrative code which says the secretary of state may also use “any other means” it deemed necessary to distinguish between identically named candidates.

In an interview Wednesday, Ferguson noted that Hobbs had called him — not the other way around. He defended his request to reorder the candidates as legal and predicted he would have prevailed on it had the other two Bobs insisted on remaining on the ballot.

“To be clear, had the Bob Fergusons not dropped out, and if the secretary of state had not changed the ballot order we would have filed a lawsuit challenging that decision and we would have won,” Ferguson said, saying there was “very little chance” a judge would have allowed the “criminal scheme” to go unchecked.

Hobbs, who has endorsed Mullet for governor, rejected the request on the ballot reordering. A spokesperson for Hobbs last week pointed to a state law that says the secretary of state “shall determine by lot” the order of names on the ballot.

Mullet’s complaint to the executive ethics board contends Ferguson was placing pressure on Hobbs to change the ballot order “for his own personal political campaign benefit” and was “a violation of his public duties” because the attorney general is supposed to recuse themselves from a case if they have a conflict of interest.

“The Executive Ethics Board needs a ruling in this matter to clarify for future statewide elected officials that you are not allowed to use your political position of power to pressure the Secretary of State’s office to change the order in which candidates’ names appear on the ballot,” the complaint said.

Despite a blast of early TV ads funded by his own campaign and a business-funded independent expenditure group, Mullet has failed so far to break double digits in early polling in the gubernatorial race.

His campaign has raised more than $1.2 million, but has spent most of that and reported about $315,000 cash on hand as of the end of April. But much of that is donor money earmarked for the general election, if he advances that far. When that is subtracted out, his campaign has roughly $50,000 to spend for the primary, though it is still raising money.

Ferguson by the same metric has raised more than $7 million and has by its estimates roughly $4.1 million available cash ahead of the primary.

The two Mullet complaints come as traditional post-Memorial Day campaigning breaks out in earnest.

Ferguson is facing an intraparty challenge from Mullet for the governor’s seat, which is open for the first time in more than a decade since fellow Democrat Gov. Jay Inslee is not running for a fourth term.

Mullet and Ferguson, along with Republicans Reichert and Semi Bird. will face off against dozens of other candidates in the Aug. 6 primary, with the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, going on to the general election.