Politics & Government

State Sen. Sam Hunt fined $1,000 for violating state ethics law

The Legislative Ethics Board has fined Sen. Sam Hunt $1,000 for violating state ethics law by allowing a group to use a state building for a political training event.

Hunt, an Olympia Democrat, has to pay half of the fine because the board suspended $500 as long as he does not violate the Ethics in Public Services Act over the next five years.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, filed the complaint against Hunt, alleging that he broke the law by allowing Emerge Washington, a candidate training organization, to use conference rooms on Feb. 23-24 in the John A. Cherberg Building on the Capitol Campus. The Cherberg Building houses Senate hearing rooms and legislative offices as well as meeting rooms.

State law prohibits a legislator from “using or authorizing a direct or indirect use of legislative facilities to assist the campaign of a person for elective office.”

In response to a request for comment, Hunt released a written statement through an aide.

“My office works hard to support constituents, and we routinely assist citizen groups in reservations of conference rooms,” Hunt wrote. “Unfortunately, in the midst of fielding the many constituent requests we receive during session, a mistake was made here in not ensuring that the room would not be used for a possible political purpose before reserving it. We’ve adjusted our process to ensure this does not happen again, and we will continue to put people first by supporting our constituents.”

The Legislative Ethics Board’s seven-page opinion released Monday said Hunt’s legislative assistant reserved the meeting space in November for Emerge Washington without discussing the matter with Hunt.

Emerge Washington, an affiliate of the national group Emerge America, works to “increase the number of Democratic women leaders from diverse backgrounds in public office all across the state and in all offices through recruitment, training, and providing a powerful network.”

Training offered on Feb. 23-24 was part of the group’s program in which participants learn about topics including fund-raising, campaign strategy, media and messaging, and field operations. At least three of the participants were candidates for local public offices, but the board’s opinion did not identify them.

Hunt was first elected to the Senate in 2016, after serving 16 years in the House. He is chairman of the State Government, Tribal Relations and Elections Committee.

Hunt could not get off the hook for the violation because his legislative assistant did not tell him that she had reserved the meeting space, the Legislative Ethics Board said.

Referring to Hunt as “Respondent,” the board wrote: “Respondent’s (legislative assistant) works for him and as such, Respondent is responsible for the actions of his (legislative assistant); their lack of communication about the room reservation in this instance will not operate to excuse Respondent for the violation...”

The Legislative Ethics Board on Monday also released an opinion on a complaint that Schoesler, the Senate Minority Leader, filed against another Democratic Senator, Claire Wilson of Auburn. Like Hunt, Wilson’s legislative assistant reserved a room for Emerge Washington in a state building — in this case for Feb. 25 in the Joel M. Pritchard Building — and did not tell Wilson, the board’s opinion said.

But after Schoesler brought the matter to the attention of the Secretary of the Senate, the reservation was canceled. As a result, the board ruled that Wilson did not violate state ethics law.

The Legislative Ethics Board can fine a legislator or staff member as much as $5,000 per violation of the Ethics in Public Services Act, according to board counsel Jennifer Strus.

Since 2015, the board has issued penalties totaling $14,618 to legislators. Of that total, $9,000 were fines, $4,782 to help pay for the board’s investigative costs, and $836 in reimbursement for travel not taken.