The Public Disclosure Commission voted to concur with a staff report today, finding the Washington State Republican Party guilty of numerous egregious violations of our state’s campaign finance and public disclosure laws, including at least $150,000 of illegal expenditures on behalf of Dino Rossi in the weeks leading up to the August primary. Lacking the authority to impose a large enough penalty proportionate to the violations, the PDC has referred the case to Attorney General Rob McKenna for further prosecution.
This is the second time in as many weeks that McKenna has been handed an investigation of close political allies, following the PDC ruling that found the Building Industry Association of Washington guilty of failing to report at least $1.2 million in campaign contributions. There is no word from McKenna as to when he might take action on either of these cases. But don’t hold your breath.
As first reported here on HA, the WSRP flagrantly used “exempt” soft money contributions to illegally finance direct advocacy, specifically a pro-Rossi/anti-Gregoire direct mail smear campaign. And as I wrote at the time, the case against Rossi and the WSRP was pretty cut and dry:
This isn’t rocket science. It’s Campaign Finance 101. All the political candidates, consultants, committees and parties know damn well what is or is not allowed. And yet the WSRP chose to blatantly violate campaign expenditure laws that have been in place for the past 16 years.
[…] Let’s be clear, this is no mistake or accidental oversight; WSRP chair Luke Esser, allegedly a lawyer, deliberately and knowingly violated the law, feebly attempting to disguise these illegal expenditures by mislabeling them as “member communications” (a label that would not make these expenditures exempt, even if true.) The WSRP could have run the mailing past the PDC ahead of time—campaigns do this all the time—but they knew the answer they would get. Which of course is why they never asked.
The distinction between “exempt” and “non-exempt” funds is clear. The former are “exempt” from normal campaign contribution limits, and may be used for party building, organizing and get out the vote efforts, but not for direct advocacy for or against a candidate. The latter may be used for any purpose, but are subject to strict contribution limits. Buy using exempt funds for non-exempt purposes the WSRP has intentionally violated the law, using large lump sum contributions from GOP fat cats like Rufus Lumry ($80,000) and Eastside developer Skip Rowley ($30,000), and from powerful special interests like the National Electrical Contractors Association ($50,000) and Walmart ($25,000) to illegally finance Rossi’s campaign.
But, well, I guess Esser just figures that breaking the law, and the inevitable fines, are just part of the cost of running an effective campaign.
No doubt the WSRP fully understands that it faces a substantial penalty for such a flagrant and deliberate PDC violation, but that won’t come until after the election, so no harm done. No, if there’s a penalty to be paid ahead of this election it will have to come at the hands of the local media, but whether they’ll give this story the scrutiny it deserves, or merely brush it off as another “he said, she said” between two feuding camps, remains to be seen.
Personally, I don’t have much faith in our local media to express the outrage such deliberate flouting of our campaign finance laws rightly deserves, and I’m afraid that McKenna, now with two major cases on his plate, against his two biggest financial backers, won’t substantively move on either case until well after the November election.
And if my fears are proven correct, that means the WSRP and the BIAW will well learn the lesson that crime does indeed pay. Voters will never know about the extent of these violations because our amen editorialists can’t be bothered to muster up the outrage, and the fines, however large, will simply be paid with more lump sum contributions from the same wealthy Republican benefactors.
What they hope to buy with all their illegal money is the governor’s mansion. And you can be sure that they’ve already made the calculation that even a hefty post-election fine would be money well spent.