We are living in an age of great scrutiny of campaign finance issues. This is true both at the federal level (with organizations like Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington [CREW] bringing cases like the emoluments clause lawsuits against the President of the United States), and in the City of Olympia, our own backyard. Much of the activity in Washington state is due to a law originally adopted by initiative in 1973, which allows Washington citizens to sue on behalf of the state to enforce campaign finance laws if state authorities will not bring the cases themselves.
This recent Seattle Times article explains that the number of formal notices starting off a state campaign finance enforcement case has shot up from 4 per year in 2012 to 79 in the first five months of 2017 alone. This continues a surge in notices that began in 2016. Nearly all of the recent notices were filed by a single individual against Democratic Party candidates and party organizations, left-of-center political committees, and related groups. Resulting in part from that increase in the volume of notices, in the past year, an historic number of campaign finance enforcement lawsuits have been filed by the Attorney General’s Office.
If you are aware of violations of Washington’s campaign finance disclosure law, codified at chapter 42.17A of the Revised Code of Washington, or its implementing regulations (see Title 390 of the Washington Administrative Code), you may file a complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission, or provide a citizen action notice to the relevant county prosecuting attorney(s) and the Attorney General in Olympia. Unlike complaints filed with the PDC, citizen action notices trigger deadlines for the government to investigate or file suit on the allegations; if no suit is filed once the notice requirements are satisfied, the citizen may bring an enforcement action in the name of the state. And if the citizen suing in the name of the state prevails, he or she may recover reasonable attorney’s fees and costs for prosecuting the action. If the defendant prevails, then he or she may recover fees and costs; where a court finds the lawsuit was filed without reasonable cause, these may be charged to the citizen who filed it.
Why do campaign finance complaints matter? Notices and complaints filed by the public can lead to campaign finance litigation or administrative penalties. Legal actions over campaign finance violations require time and resources to defend against and are significant issues in the minds of the voting public. Justice would be best served by all political players being held to the same standard of compliance with campaign finance laws. But state law leaves it in large part to private citizens to initiate enforcement actions.
To get a sense of the work our firm can do in this area, you can view an example complaint we filed last month with the Public Disclosure Commission here (this complaint was provided to the county prosecuting attorneys and the Attorney General in a modified form, and the 45-day deadline for initial review of that notice will expire September 7, 2017, so stay tuned for the next developments). All of the information we cited in this filing is in the public domain, and is freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection. The allegations in our notice are closely similar to many of the complaints filed with the Public Disclosure Commission in the past year, like failures to file expenditure and contribution reporting on time, and failures to properly report debts, orders, obligations, and loans. Several lawsuits have been filed by the state Attorney General’s Office on allegations like those in our notice.
State law gives significant responsibility to the citizens of Washington to make sure that political players play by the rules. Our firm is dedicated to doing justice in campaign finance cases by filing complaints against violators and assisting with responses to allegations of non-compliance. We are also available to review campaign practices and records and advise concerning compliance options before a complaint or citizen action notice arrives. If you would like to discuss campaign finance compliance issues under Washington law, contact us to discuss the next steps.