Politics & Government

Pierce County Democrats to pay $20k for breaking campaign finance law

A Thurston County Court record says the Pierce County Democrats will pay a fine, including legal fees for breaking campaign finance law.
A Thurston County Court record says the Pierce County Democrats will pay a fine, including legal fees for breaking campaign finance law. Thurston County Court

Pierce County Democrats will pay more than $22,600 in fines and legal fees for breaking campaign-finance laws by repeatedly failing to properly report donations and spending over the course of three years.

The organization agreed to the penalty last week, according to a filing in Thurston County Court, after the state Attorney General’s Office sued the organization in August.

The county party’s civil penalty is $31,780, although half of it is suspended unless the group breaks campaign-finance rules again in the next four years, according to court records. The Pierce Democrats also are on the hook for $6,740 in legal fees.

The Attorney General’s Office in August had accused the organization of filing campaign finance reports late — or not at all — dozens of times between 2015 and 2017. The AG’s office said the Democrats didn’t properly report $90,358 in spending, $63,642 in contributions and $34,791 in debt.

Bob Ferguson, the Democratic Attorney General, recused himself from the case. One of his assistants handled the lawsuit.

Tim Farrell, the chair of the Pierce County Democrats, said Monday afternoon that his organization had been operating with a treasurer who wasn’t up to the task. Farrell said the mistakes weren’t intentional, and he hopes to avoid them in the future.

Farrell said the organization hired a new treasurer in May.

“We will pay the fine,” he said. “And it’s that simple. And endeavor to never have this problem again.”

The suit against the Pierce Democrats began with a complaint by conservative activist Glen Morgan, who has filed dozens of similar complaints against Democrats in the last year. Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, a Seattle Democrat, was hit with a fine for similar violations in March after Morgan lodged a complaint.

The Pierce County Republicans have faced similar allegations of breaking campaign-finance rules due to a complaint from Olympia attorney Walter Smith. Smith has been filing campaign-finance complaints against Republicans in part as a response to Morgan’s complaints.

Smith filed a lawsuit against the Pierce Republicans in September. The case is pending.

The Attorney General’s Office has resolved nine lawsuits related to campaign finance rules so far this year.

Farrell said he believes campaign-finance complaints are being “weaponized” and said “that’s a problem.”

But he said he hopes his organization can own up to its mistakes and move on.

“I can’t really complain that much because they did find fault,” he said.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein