Politics & Government

GOP lawmaker exaggerated his role in Sound Transit lawsuit, lead attorney says

The only light rail in Tacoma today is the short Link loop downtown. A full connection to King and Snohomish counties is planned for 2030 under the Sound Transit 3 measure approved by voters in November 2016.
The only light rail in Tacoma today is the short Link loop downtown. A full connection to King and Snohomish counties is planned for 2030 under the Sound Transit 3 measure approved by voters in November 2016. News Tribune file photo, 2013

When a class-action lawsuit was filed Tuesday related to the Sound Transit 3 construction package, state Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, trumpeted it, saying he recruited the two attorneys in the case and led the charge for a lawsuit.

Joel Ard, one of those lawyers, now says Fortunato greatly exaggerated his role in the legal action and did not organize or recruit him or his colleague David DeWolf in any way.

"I think you’ve got someone who is campaigning for office and trying to make something out of this, and it’s a side show," Ard said in a phone interview Wednesday. Fortunato is seeking re-election this year to his state Senate seat in the Auburn-area 31st Legislative District.

fortunato_mug
State Sen. Phil Fortunato, a Republican from Auburn. - Courtesy

Made aware of Ard's contentions, Fortunato said Wednesday he reached out to the attorney in April to pique his interest in a potential lawsuit and sent him a letter from Senate Republicans to the Attorney General related to a Senate investigation into Sound Transit. The two discussed raising money for the case and coordinating a press conference when a lawsuit was filed, Fortunato said. The Republican said he eventually secured commitments for $25,000 toward the legal effort.

Fortunato has crusaded in the Legislature against the controversial way Sound Transit calculates car-tab fees to help pay for the 2016 transit package. The lawsuit hinges on how the ST3 legislation was drafted when it comes to the method for estimating the value of vehicles for the purpose of charging the fees.

In the end, Fortunato said Ard and DeWolf moved ahead with a lawsuit without his money or a joint press conference, but that he convinced Ard to start the lawsuit in the first place. He said the two have talked six to eight times since April.

The news release from Fortunato's campaign Tuesday was titled: "Fortunato recruits lawyers to file suit against Sound Transit on behalf of taxpayers." The release also says he "led the effort" to launch the lawsuit.

That's not the full story, Ard said.

Ard said he had been talking with DeWolf before Fortunato contacted him and that he already had the letter sent by Sen. Steve O'Ban and former Sen. Dino Rossi to the Attorney General's Office.

"The letter to the Attorney General was public and in my possession before I ever knew the name Phil Fortunato," Ard said.

Fortunato did send him the information later and "volunteered to be my press person." Ard said he didn't explicitly tell Fortunato no, but that he didn't involve the lawmaker in the lawsuit.

Once Ard filed the lawsuit, he said Fortunato "issued press releases taking credit for what we've done."

Fortunato noted in his news release that he was not actually party to the lawsuit since he doesn't live in Sound Transit's taxing district, which includes parts of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

The outdated way Sound Transit calculates car-tab fees has been a much-debated issue at the Capitol for a while. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have tried to offer tax cuts and rebates.

The vehicle valuation schedule overestimates the value of newer cars, leading to inflated fees for some. Sound Transit plans to switch to a more accurate schedule after 2028, when prior bonds are retired.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein
  Comments