Politics & Government

Armed with a marimba, lawmaker puts on concerts to cover legal fees from ethics case

State Rep. Melanie Stambaugh, R-Puyallup, is holding marimba concerts and confidence-coaching seminars to help pay off about $35,000 in legal fees she racked up fighting the state’s Legislative Ethics Board.
State Rep. Melanie Stambaugh, R-Puyallup, is holding marimba concerts and confidence-coaching seminars to help pay off about $35,000 in legal fees she racked up fighting the state’s Legislative Ethics Board.

Well, that’s one way to stick it to the man.

State Rep. Melanie Stambaugh, R-Puyallup, is having marimba concerts at her Sumner business to pay for the $35,000 in legal costs she racked up during a recent ethics case over her social media posts.

Earlier this month, Stambaugh’s concerts — and her battle with the Legislature over how she can share publicly produced photos and videos on Facebook — were featured on HBO’s “VICE News Tonight.”

She’s having another concert this week as part of her fundraising efforts. It’s part of her series called, “Confidence with a Cause: 44 Minutes of Music with Melanie Stambaugh.”

“Join us for marimba music, guest musicians, and refreshments as we confidently stand together for liberty and justice,” Stambaugh’s website says in its description of the event.

Creative? Yes. Allowed under the ethics rules? Maybe not.

Stambaugh, 27, recently was found to have committed 44 ethics violations for posting videos and photos produced by legislative staff to her Facebook page. That Facebook page also included campaign materials.

Legislative ethics rules say that lawmakers can’t embed state-funded materials on websites they use for campaign activity. They can only post a link that takes visitors to a separate site to view such videos.

The ethics rules, which aim to prevent the use of state resources in political campaigns, also require lawmakers to pay a fee to use official legislative photos on their campaign websites and social media pages.

In an interview Wednesday, Stambaugh said she’s used the concerts and speaking engagements to pay off about two-thirds of the money she spent to hire a lawyer to fight the allegations against her. Her battle with the state’s Legislative Ethics Board resulted in the first legislative ethics hearing to take place in Washington in 22 years.

She still has about $10,000 left to pay off, she said.

She said the concerts also include several minutes of confidence boosting and confidence coaching between marimba sets. Those inspirational talks focus in part on the confidence it took for her to stand up to the Legislative Ethics Board, she said.

“People enjoy getting to feel good about a cause while also enjoying good music,” she said.

She also offers seminars that focus on her experience with the ethics board and what she learned about public records and transparency during the process. She said she charges about $500 for a half-day session on those topics, and “it can go up from there.”

Stambaugh said she paid the $5,000 penalty the ethics board imposed on her using her own money, rather than using the revenue from the concerts and seminars.

Still, it is possible that the marimba concerts could cause her to run afoul of the ethics board once again.

Stambaugh requested an opinion from the board earlier this year as to whether she could accept gifts of less than $50 from community members, family members or other organizations. The state’s ethics laws say that legislators generally can’t accept gifts worth $50 or more in value.

Stambaugh charges $49.50 — just under the $50 threshold — for a ticket to her concerts.

In its June 30 advisory opinion, the ethics board said the combined revenue from multiple small gifts — such as, potentially, the $49.50 concert tickets — still could result in a violation of state law.

“Although the question is broadly phrased, it is clear from the legislator’s description of her need for funds and her intended use of those funds (that it) serves a single purpose: to pay her legal fees arising from ethics complaints filed against her. As a result, multiple gifts of less than $50 would be combined to produce a single result, elimination of her debt,” the opinion reads.

“... The statute explicitly addresses the situation present here: a single gift in excess of $50 is prohibited, as is a single gift with multiple sources that exceeds $50.”

The question remains, however, whether revenue from Stambaugh’s concerts can be considered income from “bona fide employment,” rather than gifts.

The board’s June opinion is clear that “simply calling an activity ‘employment’ is not sufficient to entirely overcome the prohibitions on gifts.”

But one factor that could influence whether the concert revenue is considered payment from employment is whether Stambaugh has been paid for the activity before.

Stambaugh said she has been paid to play music prior to this year’s concert series. She said she has been playing the marimba since seventh grade.

“At You Impression, we have always knit music with our confidence coaching,” Stambaugh said, referencing the name of her confidence-coaching business in Sumner. “It definitely meets the requirements they put forward because, as I said, we traveled with a marimba and snare drum since the beginning of our business.”

Two members of the ethics board wouldn’t discuss whether they thought Stambaugh’s concerts would violate ethics rules. Two other members didn’t return calls or emails requesting comment.

“Absent a new complaint, the board would not have a legal opinion on her current activities,” emailed one ethics board member, state Rep. Laurie Dolan, D-Olympia.


Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209