Lawsuit could help Washam recall effort

contributions: Limit under law called too low

June 8, 2011 

A libertarian legal advocacy group has thrown its weight behind the effort to recall Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam.

The Washington chapter of the Institute for Justice of Arlington, Va., filed a complaint in federal court Tuesday, seeking to overturn a state law limiting individual contributions to recall campaigns.

The complaint targets the state Public Disclosure Commission, Washington’s campaign-finance enforcer.

“This is not just about the Recall Dale Washam Committee,” attorney Bill Maurer said Tuesday in a meeting with The News Tribune’s editorial board. “It’s about the next Dale Washam.”

If successful, the complaint would allow the campaign led by Puyallup resident Robin Farris to accept more money from individual contributors. To date, the campaign has raised about $20,817.

Maurer, executive director of the institute’s state chapter, has argued similar campaign-finance cases in Washington and Arizona.

State law caps individual contributions to recall campaigns at $800. Only political parties are exempt from the limit. The complaint contends the cap is unconstitutional.

If the legal process follows the course envisioned by Maurer, the practical outcome would be swift.

“As expedited as we can get it,” Maurer said. He hopes the legal decisions will occur “within the next few weeks.”

The lawsuit seeks an immediate injunction that would bar the PDC from enforcing contribution limits. If granted, the injunction would allow the recall campaign to accept individual contributions greater than $800.

A recall campaign is classified as a “ballot proposition” under state law. Maurer noted that statewide initiatives and referenda, also classified as ballot propositions, are not subject to the same contribution limits as recalls.

“Due to the special nature of recall campaigns, you have to do a lot of stuff,” Maurer said. “It’s something the state says you have to litigate.”

Maurer was referring to the requirements of recall law and a continuing debate over the free legal services Farris has received from a pair of local attorneys. By law, recall petitioners must file documents in court.

Farris filed her petition against Washam on Oct. 29. In December, Superior Court Judge Thomas Felnagle approved the petition. Washam appealed that finding to the Washington State Supreme Court. The high court approved the petition March 4, giving Farris the green light to collect signatures.

Throughout the process, attorneys Tom Oldfield and Jeff Helsdon assisted Farris at no cost. Their services were listed as in-kind contributions worth almost $20,000. The PDC ruled that the services counted as individual contributions, blowing past the state cap.

Initially, the PDC suggested Farris should raise money to repay her lawyers, who didn’t want any payment. In April, the PDC backed away from the idea, and settled for a $250 fine.

The new federal complaint is the second legal challenge tied to the Washam recall campaign. In February, U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle handed Farris a victory, overturning a state ban on the use of paid signature-gatherers in recall campaigns.

To bring a recall election to the ballot, Farris must collect 65,495 signatures by early September. Relying chiefly on volunteers, she has collected 26,217 signatures over the past three months. Some of those signatures came from a paid advertisement Farris inserted in The News Tribune last month, at a cost of $5,443.

Farris expects to hire paid signature-gatherers to raise her totals. A favorable ruling in the complaint filed by the Institute for Justice would pave the way for that effort, she said.

She had hoped to reach her goal solely with volunteers, she said Tuesday, but she now says it’s unrealistic.

“It’s going to be a hard pill to swallow for some people,” Farris said. “But you know what? Signature-gathering is really difficult.”

Farris’ concerns echo those of the man she hopes to oust from office.

Between 1994 and 2005, Washam tried and failed five times to recall opponents who had defeated him in elections. He regularly complained that state laws made recall too difficult – “virtually impossible,” he said in 2001.

Outside the frame of recall, Washam bridled at signature-gathering requirements tied to local referendums. In 1991, he tried to gather signatures for a referendum to repeal a county license-tab fee.

The effort failed; Washam complained that the number of signatures required by law was too high. He sued the county on that basis without success.

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

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