Rep. Melanie Stambaugh, a Puyallup Republican, broke the rules.
Stambaugh posted official legislative photos and videos on her campaign Facebook page; in short, she used taxpayer-funded material for private advancement, a clear violation in the eyes of the Washington Legislative Ethics Board.
Alleged to have broken the rules 44 times, she now faces a $5,000 fine for each of the counts against her.
But Stambaugh challenged the ethics board in a meeting earlier this month; she correctly pointed out that the photos in question were publicly available online and that other legislative photos have been plastered next to pornographic advertisements.
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Until now, the Legislative Ethics Board has never addressed how state images can be used online. Stambaugh’s case should prompt the ethics board to update rules about public resources and their use in campaigns. The rapid rise of social media in recent years raises new questions about content and its use in official and unofficial communication.
In the 1990s, when the rules guiding the ethics board were first created, social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat didn’t exist. The Legislative Ethics Board came into existance because House and Senate partisans from both major parties used the good ol’ fashioned telephone to spread their campaign messages and they racked up a 3 million dollar phone bill as proof.
They weren’t calling to check in on their widowed aunts; they were, as Stambaugh was doing on her Facebook page, using public resources to influence voters.
But should we equate publicly available photos used on a social media site with the slimy practice of fundraising and politicking on the public’s dime? The quick answer is “no.”
Make no mistake, House members or staffers who violate ethics rules by using official House materials should undergo harsh scrutiny. There needs to be a broad line between public resources and their use in campaigns, but policing publicly available photos, even ones with restrictive copyright language, flies in the face of common sense.
The good ol’ days of phone calls, flyers, posters and personal websites have now been replaced with something more interactive and ephemeral, as our future tweeter-in-chief will attest. And it’s not such a bad thing. Social media with its two-way communication is certainly more democratic and more egalitarian than a well-designed website or pamphlet.
President Obama was the first politician to have successfully mastered the full potential of social media and he won’t be the last, though decisions about candidates should be based on more than how many likes or shares they receive. Social media is, and will continue to be, an effective communication tool for public officials. This is our future and new state ethics statutes should reflect it.
Did Stambaugh violate the ethics rule? Yes. And worse, she failed to remove the photos from her Facebook page after cautions were sent to all members by legislative lawyers. She only took the pictures down after an ethics complaint was filed, but as our colleagues on the editorial page at The Olympian point out, a $5,000 fine for each of the 44 counts against Stambaugh is an absurdly harsh amount.
The ethics board needs to join us here in the 21st century and smarten up its training of lawmakers and staff about the use of social media.
As far as Stambaugh’s concerned, until the rules are updated, the Legislative Ethics Board should uphold them.