Washam recall leader gets relief

Ruling: No need to repay lawyers, just $250 fine

April 29, 2011 

Robin Farris doesn’t have to repay her lawyers for the free legal services that launched a campaign to recall Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam from office.

Instead, the four-member state Public Disclosure Commission fined Farris $500 Thursday and suspended half the amount as part of a stipulated agreement while noting her efforts to comply with state campaign-finance laws.

The vote was unanimous.

“I’m very pleased and I’m grateful to the commission for accepting the stipulation,” Farris said. “We’re going to move forward. It’s going to be a lot easier for us to move forward and collect our signatures so we can put the focus of our energy on the recall of Dale Washam.”

Farris needs 65,495 signatures from registered Pierce County voters to bring a recall election to the ballot. Legally, she has until mid-September to reach that goal, but her self-imposed deadline is June 30. She hopes to collect 90,000 signatures,

Farris and campaign volunteers have collected 11,112 signatures so far, according to the latest totals on her campaign website. She has raised about $20,000 in cash contributions, according to her PDC filings.

Farris faced administrative charges that she violated regulations governing reporting of campaign contributions by initially placing her recall campaign in the wrong category, and failing to recognize that free legal services counted as in-kind contributions.

When Farris started the recall effort last October, she filed in the mini-reporting category, expecting to raise and spend less than $5,000, with no individual contributions greater than $500. Farris did not know whether her petition would pass muster in court; rejection would end the campaign. The mini-reporting category allowed less detailed reporting.

The number of early cash contributions she received didn’t cross the line, but Farris received free legal services from Tacoma attorneys Tom Oldfield and Jeff Helsdon, who represented her in Pierce County Superior Court as the recall effort took shape.

Those services equated to more than $21,000 in campaign contributions, blowing past the PDC limits.

In mid-December, PDC spokesman Lori Anderson, reading media accounts of the recall, alerted Farris to the issue. In early January, Farris sought and obtained permission to shift her campaign to the full reporting category. The request triggered another violation because Farris had violated the mini-reporting rules before requesting the change.

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

There was no talk of that Thursday. Assistant attorney general Bruce Marvin, representing the PDC, explained the reasoning behind the stipulated agreement.

“It is notable that the in-kind contributions were the only reason that they came out of compliance,” he said, adding that recall petitioners must go to court to set the process in motion.

Marvin added that meeting the legal standards for a recall petition might be “beyond the ken” of typical citizens, who would likely rely on legal assistance.

The point struck an ironic echo. Washam, target of the recall effort, tried and failed five times between 1994 and 2005 to recall opponents who defeated him in elections. He acted as his own lawyer every time.

Commissioner Barry Sehlin, a former Republican state legislator from Oak Harbor, suggested the original reporting violations had been corrected swiftly.

“We’re talking about a total time span of 21/2 months or something,” he said.

Commissioner Jim Clements, a former Republican state legislator from Selah, moved to accept the agreement. He praised Farris for “forthrightness.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com

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