A former Puyallup mayor was fined $500 in January by the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) for sending out a mailer last July opposing a city council candidate.
John Knutsen and Laurie Knutsen sponsored the anonymous mailer that was sent out to Puyallup residents more than three weeks before the August 1, 2017 primary election.
The mailer opposed city council candidate John Hopkins, who was mayor of Puyallup at the time and running for re-election.
The mailer included “negative statements about (Hopkins’) past business practices… and met the definition of political advertising because it appealed, directly or indirectly, for opposition to Mr. Hopkins,” according to PDC documents.
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Puyallup resident William Noland filed a formal complaint to the PDC shortly after receiving the mailer, stating that it was not signed, and did not have any identifying information, providing the PDC with a copy of the mailer.
“I am filing this complaint not because I am a supporter of John Hopkins; rather, I think it is cowardly, unethical and unlawful to smear a candidate for political office without identifying the sponsor of the mailing,” Noland wrote in his complaint.
Noland asked PDC staff to make further inquiries into the sponsor of the mailer, and PDC staff contacted the owner of the bulk mail permit number to learn that John and Laurie Knutsen co-sponsored the mailer.
PDC staff contacted the Knutsens to tell them they may have violated state law by “failing to report independent expenditure political advertising and electioneering communications” (RCW 42.17A.255, RCW 42.17A.305) and “failing to include sponsor identification on the communication” (RCW 42.17A.320).
John Knutsen, who was on the Puyallup City Council for eight years, two years as mayor, responded that he and his wife spent $2,100 on the mailers with their own funds and were not part of any candidate’s campaign.
“My wife Laurie and I are lifelong Puyallup residents,” he said in response to the PDC. “After watching Mayor John Hopkins continual disregard for laws and ethical behavior, we decided to compile a list of his misdeeds. We decided to compile a list and send it to the citizens in his district. All information has been on, TV, radio, newspapers, or through public disclosure.”
Hopkins called the act cowardly.
“The content (of the mailer), in my opinion, included a lot of misstatements, things taken out of context,” Hopkins said. “The mailer itself — (Knutsen) knew better; he ran two elections. He knew very well what the rules were, yet he sent something out without the funding source.”
Knutsen added that he and his wife were not aware of the requirements at the time they sent out the mailer.
“As a former elected official I always followed the PDC requirements but saw our mailer as an independent right to educate the public. We recall, editorials, letters to the editor and other media publications distributed to the mass public right up to election day so we assumed we had the same right,” he said.
In an interview with the PDC on Nov. 30, Knutsen said the post office did not remind him of the sponsor identification requirement. Staff at the publishing company were not aware of the requirement, according to PDC staff.
At the bottom of the mailer, “INFO.PUYALLUP” was displayed. Knutsen declined to say why the words were there, but “denied it was done to mislead people or to make them think there was a website where they could learn more about John Hopkins.”
On Jan. 25, the PDC found John and Laurie Knutsen in violation of state law for a total penalty of $1,500. $1,000 was suspended on the condition that the Knutsens:
- are in compliance with all reporting requirements,
- have no further violations of the state law or PDC rules for four years from the date of the order, and
- pay the non-suspended portion of the penalty ($500) within 30 days.