January 29, 2024

The Public Disclosure Commission met in person for the first time this year on Thursday, Jan. 25. Commission Chair Nancy Isserlis noted it was the first time all five current members of the board met in person.  

Using technology to assist compliance among topics for 2024  planning session 

The Public Disclosure Commission and staff plan to revisit the Commission’s strategic priorities at an upcoming retreat. The March session comes as Commission members have been showing an increasing interest in expanding the use of data to guide outreach and enforcement activities. The Commission is considering how to address an influx of complaints regarding late-filed or missed contribution and expenditure reports, many among low-spending campaigns in small jurisdictions.  

Commission Vice Chair Allen Hayward has suggested using technology to more closely monitor campaigns and their reporting requirements and flag campaigns that appear to be missing reports or have late filings.  

“I am a huge fan of letting computers do massive volumes of work,” he said.  

Staff noted that this would be easier with some reports – such as mandatory pre- and post-election expenditure reports, but said the amount of exceptions written into public disclosure laws would make this a complicated task for some other reporting requirements.  

Staff are also limited in how they can resolve cases. Only the Commission can find a violation of the law and impose fines. Staff can close cases with warnings or reminders and with statements of understanding, which can include fines if agreed to by both parties. An increase in enforcement action takes more staff time, but will also put more cases before the Commission.  

Commission member and past chair Fred Jarrett, noting that the agency has had great success with proactive approaches to enforcement of F-1, or Personal Financial Affairs reporting, said he hoped the agency could put new technology, such as Artificial Intelligence, to work on the project. 

Commission supports staff guidance on contributor employer and occupation requirement for contributions over $250 

For more than 20 years, PDC rules have required the disclosure of a contributor’s occupation, employer, and the employer’s location when that donor’s aggregate contributions exceed a threshold, which is currently set at $250.  

The rule is intended to discourage employers from donating through their employees, circumventing contribution limits.  

Commissioners and members of the regulated community, including treasurers, have recently asked for more guidance on situations where a contributor has multiple sources of income, or works remotely and doesn’t have an office address. They have also asked for clarification on what a campaign should do if a contributor doesn’t provide the required information about their employer and occupation. 

The Commission voted unanimously to ask PDC staff to provide guidance on both these topics.   

In the case of multiple employers or an unclear work location, PDC guidance suggests the campaign ask the contributor which employer or occupation represents the largest share of their income. If the employer location is unclear, campaigns are advised to report the location of the office where they work, the location of the office where they would report if needed, in the case of teleworkers, or if they have no duty station, the company’s headquarters.  

If a contributor does not provide employment information, campaigns should contact the contributor to attempt to get that information. If they are unable to obtain the employment information that satisfies the requirements of the law, campaigns are advised to return the contribution.  

Staff continue to monitor progress of bills in legislative session 

PDC staff are monitoring the progress of several bills as the short, 60-day 2024 legislative session proceeds. PDC General Counsel Sean Flynn briefed the commission on the progress of eight bills currently in committee.  

The cutoff for bills to pass out of their original house is Jan. 31.  

In addition to bills that would require more disclosure of expenditures and contributions close to an election, increase sponsor identification requirements for yard signs and the possible recodification of public disclosure law in the Revised Code of Washington, Flynn said staff are watching a bill that would create a state artificial intelligence (AI) task force.  

PDC staff anticipate AI becoming an issue in campaign advertising in the state and are currently working on drafting rules related to “deepfakes,” or synthetic media used in political ads, as required by legislation that passed in 2023.  

Enforcement update 

As of Jan. 17, the PDC has 129 open enforcement cases, including 86 in the assessment of facts stage and 43 under investigation for potential violations. Between Dec. 1 and that date, the agency held 35 initial hearings. Five of those cases encompassed complaints against about 450 respondents.  

During that time period, 41 cases were closed, including 11 closed with no evidence of a violation, 6 closed with reminders, 21 warning letters. Of the remaining three, one case was closed by the commission, one was closed with remedial corrections, and one was resolved with a statement of understanding. 

PDC staff highlighted several of the recently closed cases. In one, staff investigated a complaint against a group of people in the Cowlitz County who allegedly purchased in excess of 200 signs supporting a ballot proposition for area parks, but had not registered as a political committee. At the request of PDC staff, the group registered as a political committee and filed the required reports. The complaint was resolved with a written warning to the respondent.  

In a second case, the PDC received a complaint that a website with political content did not have sponsor identification, or information about who or what group paid for the website and its content. PDC staff were initially unable to determine who sponsored the website. A subpoena issued to a web domain company resulted in the disclosure of the website owner’s name and information. 

PDC eventually were able to contact the site’s owner and did not find evidence of violations that would require conducting a more formal investigation. The matter was resolved with a written warning.  

The third case highlighted by staff involved allegations of false political advertising. In contested Tri-Cities school board races, candidates reported that signs with arrows and statements, ostensibly about them, were placed directly next to their signs. Staff noted the standard for libel or defamation in this case is very high, and must be made with “actual malice,” or to “act with knowledge of falsity or with reckless disregard as to truth or falsity.” 

Because the case did not meet that standard, the case was closed with no evidence of a violation.