December 11, 2023

The Public Disclosure Commission welcomed its newest member, retired King County Superior Court judge Douglass North, at its Dec. 7 regular meeting.  North served as a King County Superior Court Judge from 2000 until his retirement in 2022. He continues to serve as a Pro Tempore judge in King County Superior Court.   

He graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in 1974 and graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in 1977. 

“I do appreciate this distinguished body I’m joining and I look forward to working with all of you,” North said.  

North’s appointment by Gov. Jay Inslee brings the Commission to its full complement of five members.  

Written order to come on disposition of complaint against Ferguson campaign 

The Commission announced its intention to draft a written order determining the disposition of an investigation into transfers of surplus fund by the Bob Ferguson campaign for governor.  

Under RCW 42.17A.490, a candidate who solicits contributions for a state, local, or judicial office may not use any unspent contributions to seek a different office without first obtaining written approval from the persons or entities who contributed the money.  

PDC staff previously advised candidates to seek permission and then report the funds as a lump-sum transfer, which is consistent with how transfers to a subsequent campaign for the same office are treated under a different section of law, RCW 42.17A.430. When questions about that informal guidance were raised earlier this year, staff took the issue to the Commission for a decision. 

On May 11, the Commission approved an updated interpretation, saying funds authorized for transfer to a campaign for a different office should be attributed to the individual donors in the new campaign’s reports and count toward applicable contribution limits for the new campaign. The Commission formally approved a written version of the interpretation on May 25.  

The PDC received two complaints, in May and June, regarding transfers the Ferguson campaign made from his surplus account into Ferguson’s gubernatorial campaign. The transfers were made according to the old guidance, just before the new guidance was approved.  

In a June 9 response, the Ferguson campaign maintained that it was correct to follow the guidance that was in existence at the time the transfers were made.  

In August, the Ferguson campaign filed amended contribution, or C-3 reports, showing that the contributions in question had been reallocated to Ferguson’s gubernatorial campaign following the more current guidance for surplus fund transfers.  

PDC staff reported at the Dec. 7 meeting that, after conducting their investigation, they were satisfied that the transfers now follow the new guidance.  

The Ferguson campaign and PDC staff signed a stipulation to the facts in the case, which includes a staff recommendation that the Commission dismiss the case with no finding of a violation, given the campaign’s efforts to come into compliance with the new guidance.  

The stipulation does not resolve a legal question related to the case – whether it was reasonable for the Ferguson campaign to rely on the old guidance while new guidance was being considered.  

The Commission discussed the issue in a closed session. After the session, Chair Isserlis reconvened the regular meeting and informed attendees that the Commission would issue a written decision on the disposition of the case by the end of December.  

Commission approves new rules for grassroots lobbying  

The Commission unanimously voted to adopt new rules on grassroots lobbying activities and inflationary adjustments for lobbying reporting thresholds after a public hearing during its Dec. 7 meeting.   

The approved rules include definitions of what is grassroots lobbying, information on how sponsors should report their activities, and more. The approved rules include several changes from the draft version, including clarification on itemizing and reporting expenditures, registration requirements for groups of organizations conducting a grassroots lobbying campaign, and rules for calculating staff time spent on campaigns.  

 PDC staff noted that some new requirements, such as a grassroots lobbying campaign’s duty to register within 24 hours of its formation during legislative session, are in the statute, passed as part of House Bill 1317 in the 2023 session, and not subject to change through the rulemaking process.  

Some commenters expressed concerns about a portion of the proposed rule requiring different groups coordinating on the same grassroots campaign to register together. Staff noted that this requirement will allow the public to more easily see how organizations work together to promote policies and legislation.  

The new law has already resulted in some changes in grassroots lobbying registration and sponsor identification on advertisements. The Legislature directed PDC staff to draft rules including additional requirements and clarifications in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC), which resulted in this rulemaking process. 

“I think the Legislature has made it really clear they want to have something to provide more transparency to this kind of lobbying,” said Commissioner Fred Jarrett. 

The inflationary adjustments to lobbying thresholds are a continuation of a broader effort to update thresholds throughout the state’s political disclosure rules. The Commission approved inflationary adjustments to reporting requirements for candidates and campaigns earlier this year.  

The approved rules will now go to the Office of the Code Reviser and will take effect 30 days after that point, in time for the 2024 legislative session.   

Agency to back two bills in 2024 legislative session 

The Public Disclosure Commission voted unanimously to support two pieces of legislation expected to be introduced in the 2024 legislative session.  

In the first, Rep. Greg Cheney, R-Battle Ground, is expected to introduce a bill to amend sponsor identification exemptions on political advertisements. Currently, any political sign four-feet by eight-feet or smaller is not required to have sponsor identification – such as a statement saying what group or individual paid for the advertisement.  

The amendment would decrease that exemption to signs 24 by 18 inches in size. Deputy Director Kim Bradford noted that staff dealt with a number of cases this year in which signs in the four-by-eight-foot range that legally had no sponsor ID led to questions and confusion from members of the public. PDC staff recommended that the Commission support the bill.  

The second bill supported by the Commission has come up at several past meetings, and would recodify public disclosure law into its own title in the Revised Code of Washington. Currently, the law is in RCW 42.17A. 

Bradford reported that the change may require considerable work by staff in the short term but will result in long-term benefits.  

Enforcement update 

The PDC continues to experience an influx of complaints, putting the agency on track for its busiest year ever.  

Between Oct. 17 and Nov. 30, PDC staff received 291 complaints, one of which was against 315 respondents. During the first five months of the fiscal year, the agency has received 525 complaints. In comparison, in 2018, the previous high-water mark for complaints, the PDC received 648 complaints for the entire fiscal year.  

Deputy Director Kim Bradford noted that if staff counted the one complaint with 315 respondents as 315 separate cases, the agency would already be well past 2018’s total. Many of the complaints come from one or two individuals. 

As of Nov. 30, 156 cases were open.  

PDC Executive Director Peter Frey Lavallee said the large amount of complaints are putting the agency in a reactive position, and that staff and the Commission will need to consider options including going to the Legislature for additional funding, or re-working its strategy for dealing with complaints and audit-based compliance. 

“We take all of the complaints we receive seriously, we assess them all carefully,” He said. “It is inevitable with hundreds of complaints, it bogs down the system.” 

The Commission plans to discuss the issue at an upcoming strategic planning session.