Politics & Government

Can state lawmakers use GoFundMe to attend national conventions — and not report donors?

Balloons descend at the Wells Fargo Center after Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia onJuly 28.
Balloons descend at the Wells Fargo Center after Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia onJuly 28. The Associated Press

A state ethics panel is questioning whether Washington lawmakers should file fundraising reports for money they receive to help them attend national political conventions, like those that took place last month in Cleveland and Philadelphia.

A handful of Washington lawmakers were chosen to attend last month’s Democratic National Convention as delegates, and some solicited donations online to help cover their attendance costs, said Keith Buchholz, counsel for the state’s Legislative Ethics Board.

Legislative attorneys issued informal advice earlier this year that such donations don’t violate the state’s ethics rules and don’t need to be reported to state or federal regulators.

But a few members of the ethics board questioned that reasoning during a meeting Tuesday, wondering whether donations made through crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe provide a covert way for lobbyists and their employers to influence state lawmakers — all while evading normal reporting requirements for campaign contributions.

“It’s almost like a new way of collecting funds — and no one has thought about ‘How do we monitor that?’” said Debbie Regala, a former Democratic state senator from Tacoma who now serves on the ethics board.

“That sounds like a loophole to me,” said state Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, another member of the board.

State ethics law prohibits lawmakers from accepting gifts of more than $50 in most circumstances, outside of campaign contributions that are properly reported to the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Yet the rules also allow state officers to accept items “authorized by law” — and federal law says that delegates can raise money to attend national conventions without reporting who their donors are.

“A delegate is not required to report contributions received for the purpose of furthering his or her selection,” federal rules state.

On Tuesday, the ethics board asked Buchholz to explore further whether lawmakers must report who helps pay for them to attend national conventions. His report is due back to the ethics board in October.

Last month, several delegates estimated that attending the four-day Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia would cost them at least $3,000 between airfare, lodging and ticket prices.

The convention fundraising by one lawmaker — state Rep. David Sawyer, D-Parkland — became the subject of an elections complaint and a negative ad campaign last month, prompting Sawyer to take down his GoFundMe page and cancel his trip.

Sawyer, who said he stayed behind to focus on his re-election campaign, later defeated fellow Democrat Branden Durst in the Aug. 2 primary. The Public Disclosure Commission dismissed the complaint about Sawyer’s fundraising without taking action.

Two other lawmakers who attended the Democratic National Convention as delegates, Democratic state Reps. Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma and Noel Frame of Seattle, said they didn’t use online or other types of fundraisers to pay for their trips.

“I paid my own way on this one,” Jinkins said. “I was just happy to be part of history.”

The issue of paying for convention costs didn’t arise among Republican lawmakers this year, as none of them were chosen as delegates to last month’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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