At least $250,000 and as much as $300,000 leaked bit by bit out of state Senate Democrats’ campaign coffers at a crucial time — before and just after the 2012 election that wrenched control of the Senate away from the Democratic caucus.
Authorities now say Michael W. King of Seattle embezzled that money, using campaign contributions to fund what King told them were his drinking and gambling problems.
King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg’s office on Tuesday charged Senate Democrats’ former campaign director with eight counts of theft, saying he has made a full confession to police.
Police said they traced some of the money to spending at local casinos. Charging documents quote King as saying: “I did these things and I have to accept consequences and I do.”
The lawyer the documents identified as King’s attorney couldn’t be reached Wednesday at his office. Democrats’ lawyer, Paul Lawrence, said he expects King to enter a plea at his Oct. 7 arraignment and that prosecutors will recommend a two-year sentence plus payback of most of the money.
Democrats’ accounts were left depleted as they prepared for this year’s high-stakes special election in Pierce and Kitsap counties for a state Senate seat.
They have started to build back up their campaign war chest, but Senate Republicans’ committees still have more than twice as much money as their rivals. Democratic Sen. Nathan Schlicher faces GOP Rep. Jan Angel Nov. 5.
Republicans and two rogue Democrats took over the Senate earlier this year after gains in last year’s election, which hinged in part on GOP Sen. Don Benton defeating Rep. Tim Probst in the Vancouver area by fewer than 80 votes.
“From what I understand, particularly with the Benton-Probst race, if we had those funds we potentially could have been on TV and done a better job for Tim Probst, but that’s hindsight,” said Sen. Sharon Nelson of Maury Island, the campaign chairwoman.
Charging documents say the thefts were disguised as payments for bonuses or as reimbursements for polling or personal expenses.
Democrats said Wednesday that King may have reported false polling results as part of the cover-up. “We were potentially getting bad data,” Nelson said.
Suspicious post-election payments drew the attention of the campaign committee’s then-treasurer, Jason Bennett. He told Democrats, who reported the theft to police last winter.
Nelson, along with Sens. Ed Murray and David Frockt of Seattle, former Sens. Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor and Lisa Brown of Spokane and the late Scott White of Seattle all helped co-chair the committee at times during King’s tenure.
Senators on Wednesday sought to deflect blame from their own oversight, while also saying they “acknowledge responsibility for a system of controls that were not sufficient.” Murray said the director, King, ran the committee.
Their lawyer, Lawrence, said the former treasurer, Bennett, wasn’t “looking at these numbers with the fine-tooth comb that you would have expected.”
Bennett said Wednesday that he never saw budgets for the Senate committee and wouldn’t have had any way to know if expenses were legitimate.
“My contract is very clear and unambiguous,” Bennett said. “We operated in our lane, and we didn’t deviate from it. We had a very limited role in (the finances of the) campaign.”
Democrats said they now audit their accounts monthly and are no longer “passively relying” on a treasurer.
The thefts started in March 2011 with King submitting requests for reimbursement to Bennett, police said. Democrats said the thefts accelerated after Bennett gave King check-writing authority. Police said that happened in February 2012.
Democrats said giving check-writing authority to the director departed from past practice, while Bennett said some previous directors had the same authority.
The senators, who have hired new staff, said the current director does not have check-writing power.
King is scheduled to be arraigned Oct. 7 in a King County courtroom.