An explicit website isn’t the focus of state Rep. Melanie Stambaugh’s ongoing ethics case, but she says it underscores a point she’s been trying to make all along.
That is, if anyone — including the owners of a pornography site — can access and use official legislative photos online, why is she accused of 44 ethics violations for doing the same?
The issue has emerged as a curious sideshow to Stambaugh’s case before the state’s Legislative Ethics Board, which held a rare hearing this month to determine whether the Puyallup Republican broke ethics rules by posting legislative photos and videos on a campaign Facebook page.
Buried amid more than 30 exhibits Stambaugh submitted to the board was a screenshot of another Republican lawmaker’s official photo, plastered next to pornographic advertisements on a mysterious website.
The site in question features a collection of sexually explicit images on its homepage. But if you type state lawmakers’ names into the website’s search bar, their portraits and other official legislative photography will pop up, too, alongside the site’s graphic ads.
So will pictures of some lawmakers with their legislative pages — teenage students who come to the Legislature to assist lawmakers and legislative staff during sessions.
Other non-pornographic images from the internet also can be accessed using the site’s search bar.
Yet the realization that legislative photos can be pulled up on the website next to images of sex acts and ads for penis enhancements has prompted legislative staff to reexamine just how widely the state’s images are used online, and whether the Legislature can do anything to keep its photos off certain parts of the internet.
“We don’t want to do anything that promotes porn or uses our content on porn (sites),” said Mike Hoover, legal counsel for the House Republican caucus, of which Stambaugh is a member. “If there is something we can do better to make this not happen, we’re open to it.”
We don’t want to do anything that promotes porn, or uses our content on porn (sites). If there is something we can do better to make this not happen, we’re open to it.
Mike Hoover, legal counsel for Washington state House Republicans
Hoover said the caucus is “trying to walk the line” between making legislative photos available as public records, but not have them appear on pornography sites.
Barbara Baker, chief clerk of the state House of Representatives, said it appears that the site in question is merely using a built-in search engine or webcrawler to access publicly available photos online, but the use of the photos is still a concern that staff are looking into.
Those discussions are happening separately from Stambaugh’s ethics proceedings, said Baker, who said it wouldn’t be appropriate for her or other House staff to comment on Stambaugh’s ongoing case.
In particular, Baker said House staff are examining whether some of the Legislature’s political caucuses have more permissive settings on their social media pages than others, leading to their images being more easily accessed — and whether those settings should be changed.
In the case of House Republicans, their caucus Flickr page allows photos posted there to be redistributed “even commercially,” according to licensing information attached to their images on the photo sharing site.
House Democrats’ Flickr page, however, has more restrictive copyright language, noting that all rights are reserved.
It could be an easy fix, Baker said, “if a box that we checked erroneously or inadvertently led to our photos being disseminated to places they shouldn’t be.”
“We’re going to try to make this right, if we figure out that’s what the problem was,” Baker said. “But we’re still looking at that.”
If they’re going to get so persnickety about how legislators use these photos, maybe we should visit real problems that are staining the image of the state.
Nick Power, attorney for state Rep. Melanie Stambaugh
None of the legislative images on the site appears to be altered to make them pornographic. The site’s owners have paid for a privacy service through a web hosting company, and a reporter’s efforts to reach them were unsuccessful.
Stambaugh’s case marks the first time in 22 years an ethics case in Washington state has progressed to a hearing.
At the core of the case is a law barring lawmakers from using state resources for political campaigns. The Ethics Board alleges Stambaugh violated ethics rules by posting state-produced videos and photos to a Facebook page she also used for campaign purposes.
In an interview, Stambaugh said she finds it odd that some of the legislative images can be commercially used, including on a site that features pornography, “but I as a legislator can’t use them.”
Stambaugh’s lawyer, Nick Power, said called the loose licensing of the House GOP photos “a strange revelation.”
“If they’re going to get so persnickety about how legislators use these photos, maybe we should visit real problems that are staining the image of the state,” Power said.
Power and opposing attorneys for the Ethics Board were scheduled to submit written closing arguments in Stambaugh’s ethics case Friday.
Power said he isn’t sure how long it will take for the board to issue a ruling.
If the Ethics Board rules Stambaugh committed all 44 violations, she faces a fine of up to $220,000 — though the board’s chairman previously said it is unlikely the board would impose the maximum penalty of $5,000 per offense.