Latest in Washam case: There's no free counsel for recall petitioners

Regulation: Public Disclosure Commission says lawyers must be paid

February 11, 2011 

State campaign-finance regulators say there’s no such thing as free attorney services when it comes to recall campaigns.

The analysis frustrates Puyallup resident Robin Farris, leader of an effort to recall Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam from office. When she filed her recall petition last fall and private attorneys offered to help her at no cost, she assumed free meant free.

That’s not how the state Public Disclosure Commission sees it.

The commission has filed a set of administrative charges against Farris’s campaign committee, saying that pro bono legal services provided by two local attorneys violate state laws governing campaign-contribution limits.

The commission has scheduled a hearing on the charges for Feb. 24.

“We want people to know that we’re not trying to be deceptive,” said Farris, a self-described political novice. “I’m just stupid. We’re gonna do the right things and move forward.”

The charges highlight complex legal questions.

By one measure, the recall campaign hasn’t started. The recall petition, approved by a Pierce County Superior Court judge in December, is not active yet. It sits in the hands of the Washington State Supreme Court, which could overturn the lower court’s decision, ending any campaign effort. The justices won’t make a decision until March at the earliest.

The PDC, citing prior recall efforts and commission decisions, says the campaign began when Farris filed her recall petition in October and set up her website.

The commission also has told Farris that legal services in Superior Court count as campaign contributions – but legal services at the Supreme Court level do not.

Farris’s latest campaign reports list almost $33,000 in in-kind contributions. Virtually all of that money reflects the value of legal services provided by her attorneys, Jeff Helsdon and Thomas Oldfield, who represented her in court.

The commission’s charges say those services violated the law because they count as individual contributions, which are capped at $800.

Farris initially filed her disclosure papers in the mini-reporting category, saying she did not expect to raise more than $5,000 in contributions – a threshold that allows less detailed reporting. The number of cash contributions she received didn’t cross that line, but the free legal services blew past it, the PDC says. That meant another violation.

Alerted by commission staff members in December, Farris requested a change to full reporting. That request triggered another violation under PDC rules, because Farris violated the mini-reporting rules before requesting the change, though staff members still allowed her to file the full reports.

The charges note that Farris could mitigate the violations by raising more money and “paying down” the costs of legal services until they match individual contribution limits.

Farris doesn’t want public donations to offset the legal services, she said Thursday. Helsdon said his legal firm isn’t trying to get paid. He offered to work for free because he believed the effort was worth it, he said.

“We don’t want the money,” Helsdon said. “We do not want the money.”

Farris thinks the legal twists create a hurdle that limits the citizens’ constitutional right to recall public officials. Classifying legal services as individual contributions creates a dilemma: the law requires a petitioner to go to court to file a recall, but an attorney offering pro bono help will exceed the individual contribution limit within a few hours.

“Unless you’re already an attorney or you’re independently wealthy, you’re not gonna be able to move forward,” Farris said. “Anyone can go out and get signatures, That doesn’t take any special skill.

“But I need to have an attorney. I’m on a fixed income, and I can’t get a lawyer who wants to help me and still be within the limits.”

Farris, her lawyers and PDC staffers are still discussing the case in the run-up to the Feb. 24 hearing, which could lead to fines, a dismissal or an agreement that lands somewhere in between.

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