Speaker of the House Frank Chopp will pay about $6,470 for not reporting campaign donations and expenditures on time, Washington’s Attorney General’s Office said Tuesday.
The fine — which includes a penalty and legal fees — was levied after the office filed a complaint in Thurston County Court in late February.
First sparked by a citizen complaint from conservative activist Glen Morgan, the legal action against the Democratic leader from Seattle is the latest move in what some describe as an ongoing wave of frivolous tit-for-tat campaign accusations between Republicans and Democrats.
Morgan said he is simply trying have a broad conversation about reforming the complex rules and regulations that police campaign finance in the state.
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Morgan has made more than 40 complaints between October 2016 and March 7 to the AG’s office, according to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission, which tracks campaign spending. Nearly all of Morgan’s actions have been against Democrats.
In a Tuesday news conference, Chopp told reporters his violations were not intentional and that he wanted to get back to focusing on more pressing issues in the Legislature.
The lawsuit claimed he was too slow in refunding campaign contributions that were over spending limits and in reporting debts incurred, in addition to the delays in reporting donations and expenditures. Chopp could be fined an additional $1,740 if he violates campaign rules in the next four years.
“It’s pretty obvious I was late on a couple of items,” Chopp said.
Anyone can ask the AG’s office to investigate campaign finance violations under a provision in state law. The attorney general then decides whether to take legal action or not. If that office decides not to file a lawsuit, the person who complained can sue on behalf of the state. If he or she wins, the state pays legal fees and costs.
Morgan, who has run for elected office as a Republican, is not the only one filing complaints. House GOP Floor Leader J.T. Wilcox of Yelm is facing a pending citizen complaint that originated with the King County Democratic party.
Disclosure charges made against GOP Secretary of State Kim Wyman on last year’s campaign trail also originated with the state Democratic Party. The Attorney General’s Office took that case to court, and a judge ordered Wyman to pay the state more than $10,000 for not meeting deadlines to report contributions and expenditures.
“I think it’s a disturbing trend,” said state Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, about the mounting campaign allegations.
The Republican from Ritzville said he hadn’t seen the case against Chopp and couldn’t comment on whether it was warranted. But he blamed the Attorney General’s Office for starting a back-and-forth by pursuing the Wyman case, which he implied was politically motivated.
Records show Morgan began routinely filing complaints in October 2016, the month Wyman’s lawsuit was announced.
Evelyn Fielding Lopez, executive director of the state’s nonpartisan Public Disclosure Commission, characterized much of the campaign violations alleged by Morgan and Democrats as minor.
Lopez said the citizen complaint law is being misused by partisans for political gain. She likened the frequent complaints to asking the Washington State Patrol to use “enough troopers on I-5 to give a ticket to everyone driving 1 mile over” the speed limit.
She said the AG’s office doesn’t have enough leeway when deciding whether to pursue citizen complaints, and can’t always distinguish minor accusations from more important issues.
One possible solution: A change in state law to refer citizen complaints to the PDC first, where they can decide if the violations merit a warning or a smaller penalty, said Lopez. No legislation on the topic is pending, she said.
In an interview, Morgan said his accusations are only meant to bring attention to what he calls “widespread” violation of campaign disclosure rules, in the aim of rewriting the laws. If so many are breaking the rules, Morgan asked, “ is the law correct?”
He suggested looking at whether there should be less regular reporting of campaign expenditures and clearer definition of major and minor campaign finance violations, among other changes.
Democratic Party Chairwoman Tina Podlodowski, who ran against Wyman last fall, said the state should instead have “more stringent reporting requirements” and increase money for the PDC so it can better monitor campaign spending.
She dismissed Morgan as “filing nuisance lawsuits.”
The Attorney General’s Office also filed a claim against state Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, that originated with Morgan. The AG’s office alleges Hunt didn’t report in-kind contributions, expenditures and incurred debts quickly enough.
Hunt said none of his violations was “willful,” and he’s not sure if he will settle quickly or take steps to fight the lawsuit.
As is his usual practice, Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson has recused himself from the campaign finance cases involving lawmakers. He also recused himself in the Wyman lawsuit.