February 21, 2023

Commission highlights: January 2023

The Commission found Lynnwood City Council Member Joshua Binda in violation of campaign finance law for improperly using $2,742 in 2021 campaign funds for personal expenses. Binda was also found in violation for filing a final campaign report 280 days late.

The Commission imposed a fine of $1,000, with $500 suspended provided there are no further violations for four years and the fine is paid on time.

The personal expenses included money spent for airfare, haircuts, tickets for an event, dental work and other items.

Binda told the Commission that as a 21-year-old first-time candidate, who was also a college student, he was not well-versed in PDC requirements and his campaign consisted mainly of inexperienced student volunteers. He reimbursed the campaign for expenditures that were later deemed not related to the campaign, and filed amended reports to correct errors.

Binda acknowledged the mistakes, saying he would be accountable for the errors. He also said some of the confusion arose from the way payments made via an online banking system were processed. Binda said the system “auto filled” and mistakenly attributed some expenditures to the wrong account.

Commissioner William Downing, who made the motion to find the violations and impose a fine, said he saw mitigating factors in Binda’s lack of experience and in the good faith efforts he made to address his mistakes.

Read more about the case on the PDC website.

Inflation adjustment discussion

Commissioners continued their discussion of inflationary adjustments to campaign finance reporting thresholds and contribution limits, with an eye on adopting new limits in February.

New limits on a number of dollar values set in statute would be established, based on inflation since the last time values were set in statute. They also may be rounded to assist with public understanding.

Contribution limits could rise from $1,000 per election to $1,200 for legislative and local races, and from $2,000 to $2,400 per election for statewide and judicial races.

The draft chart of dollar values discussed at the January meeting is linked on the PDC website. The Commission could make further adjustments when it meets in February.

Commission reconsiders findings against former sheriff

The Commission reconsidered findings from a Nov. 17, 2022, hearing at which former Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich was fined for violating campaign finance law by using public facilities to oppose a candidate for Spokane County Commission. At that November hearing, Knezovich was also found in violation for engaging in indirect lobbying when he encouraged members of the public to contact state legislators about changes in the law.

The allegations stemmed from a video Knezovich published while he was still sheriff.

The Commission voted to reconsider the matter. After a closed-session discussion, they voted to retain the violation of misuse of public facilities to oppose Spokane County Commission candidate Amber Waldref, as well as a $300 fine, with $100 suspended provided he pays the remaining fine on time. They also voted to strike the violation dealing with indirect lobbying.

Knezovich told the Commission he wanted to appeal the November decision because “for me, it’s more about the ability of an elected official to communicate with the public.”

He said the intent of his video was not to lobby or affect Waldref’s campaign.

“It was to raise awareness and try to bring public officials to the table to resolve an issue,” Knezovich said.

Commissioner William Downing said that elected officials have an obligation to keep the public informed. “Certainly, urging people to contact legislators if they have strong feelings for or against something – that’s always good advice,” he said.

He said Knezovich’s pointed approach was “a little bit problematic,” but that “because of our trust in the public and our recognition of the free speech rights and the duties of an elected official, we’re going to give a ride on that aspect of the claims.”

Commissioner Allen Hayward agreed, and added that “I was concerned that we didn’t want to send a message that a public official couldn’t or shouldn’t let their views be known.” But he said officials should make it clear that the advice to contact a legislator applies whether a member of the public is for or against the issue being addressed.

Read more about the case on the PDC website.

Petition sparks discussion on who’s covered by the session freeze

The Commission denied a petition from Blue Wave Political Partners asking for a declaratory order on who is covered by the session freeze – the statute that prohibits campaign fundraising 30 days before and throughout the legislative session.

Blue Wave asked for clarification on the language of the statute, which says the law applies to state officials or “a person employed by or acting on behalf of a state official or state legislator” from fundraising during the freeze. The petitioner asked whether the freeze applies only to employees or others fundraising for an official or legislator, or whether it might be interpreted to forbid someone who works for a state agency headed by an elected official from fundraising for their own campaign, say, for a council seat in their city.

The Commission voted to deny the petition because the declaratory order process is meant to be used in a specific case, whereas the petition asked a general question about all state employees.

Even with the petition denial, commissioners agreed that the question is a worthy one that might be better addressed by rulemaking, a Commission interpretation or even an update in legislation.

The Commission asked PDC staff to take a look at whether staff have, in the past, offered informal guidance on similar questions. The Commission can then decide how to proceed.

New initiatives in PDC Strategic Plan

Two new areas of focus for 2023 are:

  • Commission Outreach program. It will involve holding regular Commission meetings outside Olympia, in other parts of the state. It also includes quarterly stakeholder forums and increased outreach to jurisdictions and associations in an effort to increase awareness of filing requirements.
  • Lobbying Disclosure improvements. Project goals include updating the law and rules as needed to ensure accurate reporting, consolidating filing requirements among different private lobbying groups to make it easier for the public to follow lobbying activity and tracking activities as they relate to specific legislation or issues. Findings from the project will inform work being planned to modernize the lobbyist reporting system.

Rulemaking petition on C-4 reports denied

The Commission voted to deny a petition asking for a rule regarding enforcement of C-4 (Receipts and Expenditure Summary) reporting deadlines. The petition sought to require automatic penalty warnings for late-filed C-4 reports.

Commissioners learned that automating the process would require additional data and technology. In addition, an automatic process might incorrectly flag campaigns that are not required to file a C-4 because they have not engaged in enough activity.

Reporting modification requests

The Commission denied a reporting modification request from the national nonprofit Center for Election Science. CES asked to be exempted from reporting the source of a payment from the American Endowment Foundation, which would otherwise need to be disclosed as one of the top 10 largest sources of payments of $10,000 or more during the current calendar year. The donor, who had made a $250,000 gift to the foundation, had asked to remain anonymous.

Attorney Anna Cavnar, representing the center, told the Commission that the center’s only activity in Washington state was in support of a ballot initiative on voting reform in Seattle, and that other top donors were disclosed on its report to the PDC. She said that the anonymous donation to the foundation was not earmarked for political initiatives in Washington state. And she said that disclosing the donor’s identity in a PDC report would constitute an unreasonable hardship.

But commissioners were not convinced from the materials presented that a hardship existed. And they were concerned about setting a precedent of allowing anonymous large-dollar donors.

The Commission approved a reporting modification request from the San Juan County Democratic Central Committee. The committee had registered under the mini-reporting option, which restricts campaign spending to $5,000 and does not require detailed reporting to the PDC.

Committee Chair David Turnoy said the committee registered under mini-reporting in 2021 in an effort to limit filing obligations from a new committee treasurer who needed to learn the reporting system. He said the committee intended to stay within the mini-reporting limit in 2022, but that the cost of sending postcards with committee endorsements to county voters came in higher than an initial bid. Once the higher bill came due, the committee paid it, even though it put them over the mini-reporting spending limit.

In the end, the committee reported spending $5,270.25, as of Nov. 12, 2022. Committees can switch from mini to full reporting if they realize ahead of time that they will exceed the limit. But the committee would be required to fill all reports that would have been due under full filing. The modification request would allow the committee to avoid that process.

The Commission voted to grant the request due to the unusual circumstances, including the inadvertent and minimal spending over the limit.

Enforcement stats

As of Jan. 17, 2023, PDC staff closed 37 cases based on complaints filed by the public – most of them filed in the fall of 2022 or later. An additional five cases based on complaints filed by PDC staff were closed between Nov. 29, 2022 and Jan. 17, 2023.

An additional 49 cases remained in active status as of Jan. 17, 2023.

Next regular Commission meeting: Feb. 23, 2023