Politics & Government

Is Olympia lawyer the Democrats’ champion in complaint-filing war?

Olympia attorney follows the money in campaign finance

Olympia attorney Walter Smith has made a practice of holding campaigns accountable to finance reporting laws.
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Olympia attorney Walter Smith has made a practice of holding campaigns accountable to finance reporting laws.

A conservative activist has been taking aim at Democrats and liberal groups for the past year, filing at least 120 complaints saying they’ve broken Washington state’s campaign-finance laws.

Now, someone is turning the magnifying glass around, saying conservative crusader Glen Morgan and a group he leads have committed some of the same financial-reporting violations.

Walter Smith, an Olympia attorney, said he’s concerned that the state’s campaign finance laws are being enforced unevenly due to the volume of complaints Morgan has filed against Democratic candidates in recent months.

Smith wants Republicans to feel the heat, too.

“I see this as a fairness issue,” said Smith, 31, who worked for the campaign-finance unit of the Attorney General’s Office before leaving in July and starting his own private practice.

“There have been quite a few cases against Democratic entities in the last year. That leads me to thinking that the same conduct on the other side of the aisle should be treated seriously.”

Morgan has “really invited this type of scrutiny ... by filing so many complaints of his own,” Smith added.

I see this as a fairness issue.

Walter Smith, Olympia attorney filing complaints about campaign-finance violations by conservatives

According to the state Attorney General’s Office, Morgan has filed at least 100 citizen action notices with the agency this year, none of them against Republicans. His filings have made up more than 90 percent of the total citizen-action notices filed with the Attorney General’s Office this year, spokeswoman Brionna Aho said.

That’s on top of the 19 complaints Morgan filed with the agency in 2016.

Some of Morgan’s complaints have resulted in the Attorney General suing Democratic groups, including the Pierce County Democrats and the King County Democrats, for failing to properly report campaign spending and contributions.

Other filings by Morgan have prompted Democrats to settle lawsuits with the Attorney General’s office, as in the cases of House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and state Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia.

Some observers say they aren’t surprised that someone like Smith has shown up to try to balance the scales.

“Politics works tit for tat,” said Alex Hays, a Republican political consultant. “This new guy is the tat.”

Since July, Smith has filed two citizen-action notices with the attorney general’s office concerning Morgan, a former member of the Rochester school board. One complaint is against the Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights, which employs Morgan as its executive director.

Politics works tit for tat. This new guy is the tat.

Alex Hays, a Republican political consultant

Smith alleges the group was late in reporting more than $100,000 in contributions and expenditures between 2015 and 2017, for a total of 99 alleged violations. Smith says some of those violations include campaign activity leading up to the 2016 election that wasn’t reported until 2017.

Smith also says Morgan created a shell committee last year to conceal donors and obscure who was paying for robocalls opposing Democrat Jim Cooper, a candidate for the Thurston County Commission.

Smith has filed a third complaint against the Pierce County Republican Party, accusing the group of ordering thousands of dollars of services during the 2016 campaign season that weren’t reported until 2017, as well as being late to report $100,000 in contributions.

Smith said he isn’t working for any group, and hasn’t been asked to file the complaints by any political organization or candidate. The state Democratic Party said Smith isn’t working on its behalf.

“These are significant issues, especially in this day and age, where money does play a major role in politics,” Smith said. “Requiring timely and accurate disclosures is pretty clearly the law, and I would expect people to follow the law.”

For his part, Morgan isn’t upset about the complaints Smith has filed against him, though he said he’s not sure all the numbers and details in them are accurate.

Morgan said Smith’s complaints only serve to underscore his larger point: That the state’s campaign finance laws are so technical — and in some cases, outdated — that they can’t possibly be followed by anyone all the time.

“My view is the way our campaign-finance law is written, every single person involved in the process is violating the law,” Morgan said.

For instance, Morgan said the current system requires treasurers for political committees to report debt in a way that runs contrary to typical accounting processes.

There probably is some reform that is needed to make (the law) easier to comply with, so that it stays focused on revealing who is funding campaigns, and not so focused on nit-picky violations

Glen Morgan, conservative activist who has filed dozens of campaign-finance complaints against Democrats

Morgan said he has filed myriad complaints to highlight the problems with the current system and to build up a body of evidence showing lawmakers the need for change.

He said the current law creates an “insiders’ game” where experienced political operatives and candidates can target their opponents with complaints, but it becomes hard for everyday people to get involved in the process.

“There probably is some reform that is needed to make it easier to comply with, so that it stays focused on revealing who is funding campaigns, and not so focused on nit-picky violations that are time intensive to fulfill but not necessarily valuable to the public,” Morgan said.

Smith doesn’t buy Morgan’s argument.

“I really don’t think this is just trivial stuff,” Smith said of the complaints he filed against Morgan and his group. “My complaints I filed are not about things being one day late, they’re not about $1 transactions — they’re pretty significant delinquencies.”

Some lawmakers want to look at whether the state’s rules for reporting campaign donations and spending can be streamlined.

State Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way and the chairman of the Senate State Government Committee, said he will hold a committee hearing or work session in October to see if there are ways to improve the process. He said he’ll ask Morgan to testify about what reforms he thinks need to be made.

Miloscia said he wants to ensure the state is “going after bad actors, and not just technical violations.”

State Rep. Zack Hudgins, the chairman of the House committee that deals with elections, said he’s open to having that discussion.

But Hudgins, D-Tukwila, said if Morgan wanted to make a point, he could have done it by targeting Republicans as well, and not just Democrats.

“When it becomes political, it becomes harder to find middle ground,” Hudgins said.

The Attorney General’s Office has until next month to decide whether to act on Smith’s complaints against Morgan and the Pierce County Republicans. If the agency does nothing, Smith has the option of pursuing the cases in Superior Court on the state’s behalf.

Smith said he’s not looking to launch as many citizen-action notices against Republicans as Morgan has against Democrats.

Yet he may file more down the road.

“I wouldn’t rule it out,” he said.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1