Sound Transit apparently violated state elections law when it released nearly 173,000 protected email addresses of ORCA transit cardholders to the campaign promoting the $54 billion ballot measure to expand light rail, the state’s campaign-finance watchdog has found.
In an investigation report issued Friday, the Washington Public Disclosure Commission determined Sound Transit’s release of the passholders’ email addresses to the Mass Transit Now campaign violated the state law that prohibits public agencies from using public resources to assist a political campaign.
“They can give campaigns public records, they just have to follow their normal and regular process in doing so,” PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson said. “What our staff thinks is that it wasn’t normal or regular to give out ORCA email addresses.”
The PDC recommended that Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson “take appropriate action” to deal with the regional transit agency’s apparent violation.
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Ferguson’s office has until Oct. 6 to decide whether to file civil charges and seek penalties against Sound Transit. If the AG’s office declines to do so, Conner Edwards, who brought the formal “citizen action” complaint to the PDC alleging Sound Transit’s violation, can filed his own civil case against the agency.
Ferguson’s spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.
Edwards, a Republican political consultant based in Tacoma, said Monday he plans to pursue a civil case against Sound Transit should the AG’s office decline to do so.
Mass Transit Now obtained the ORCA passholders’ email addresses through public-records requests submitted to the agency earlier this year. Personally identifying information for ORCA cardholders is exempt from public disclosure under state law, but Sound Transit released the information as part of its response to campaign officials.
After The Seattle Times inquired about the release of the email information, Sound Transit officials acknowledged that restricted email addresses had been improperly released. An agency spokesman told The Times the emails had been mistakenly co-mingled and released with other citizen contact information that was legally disclosable under state law.
After The Times’ inquiries, an attorney for Sound Transit notified the Mass Transit Now campaign about the improper disclosure and asked the campaign to delete the ORCA email addresses from its files. A Mass Transit Now spokesman later said that the campaign had done so.
As part of its investigation, the PDC reviewed various records and interviewed Mass Transit Now campaign manager Abigail Doerr, as well as Sound Transit’s public-records officer and senior legal counsel involved in handling the records requests.
The PDC recommended no action be taken on a separate allegation in Edwards’ complaint: that Sound Transit also violated the state’s Public Records Act by disclosing confidential ORCA cardholder information. The PDC noted in its investigation that it doesn’t have jurisdiction over the Public Records Act, but added that individuals who believe they were aggrieved “may take appropriate action.”
The PDC is also separately investigating allegations that Sound Transit violated elections law in an online survey this year that included questions that sought to gauge why people would vote for the ballot measure. That investigation is expected to be wrapped up this week, Anderson said.