March 6, 2020

Facebook complaints referred to Attorney General

Commissioners voted unanimously to refer two 2019 complaints over disclosure regarding Facebook political ads to Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

A decision on the matter was held over from the Commission’s January meeting, when a proposed stipulated agreement between the PDC and the company was presented.

The extra time allowed the Commission time to review documents and hear from the two complainants, who said Facebook failed to comply with state law. State law requires commercial advertisers to produce certain information about political ads on request.

One complainant offered written comments to the Commission and spoke at the Commission meeting. Commissioners also heard from an attorney representing Facebook.

Commissioner William Downing said the Commission was concerned that the proposed stipulated agreement did not bring finality to the issue.

“We have to insist on full compliance,” Downing said. At the same time, he said, the Commission hopes to engage with Facebook – outside of the pending enforcement action – on policy matters and potential changes in the law.

Commissioner Fred Jarrett said his goal is to ensure that Facebook can become fully compliant with state law and remain a platform for use by campaigns in Washington state.

Chair’s remarks

Commission Chair David Ammons took note of policy discussions on campaign finance issues taking place during the 2020 session of the state Legislature.

He mentioned work by commissioners and staff members, as well as support from the state League of Women Voters and other backers of disclosure and campaign finance legislation.

He complimented PDC staff members who continue to offer effective assistance to those who must file reports with the agency, as well as compliance team members working to reduce case backlogs.

He also noted several PDC-originated cases that are being handled by the state Attorney General’s office and the court system, including one that resulted in a recent ruling by Thurston County Superior Court Judge James Dixon.

No changes in contribution thresholds

Commissioners biennially review inflationary factors that could prompt changes to campaign contribution limits and monetary thresholds used for PDC reporting.

Based on the inflationary index recommended by the Office of Financial Management, PDC Executive Director Peter Lavallee recommended no change. Commissioners accepted his recommendation.

Information about contribution limits can be found on the PDC website.

The last time a change was made was in December 2015.

Pending legislation

Commission members heard updates on how pending legislation would govern personal financial affairs disclosure to the PDC by candidates and elected officials.

They also heard about proposed state laws that would:

  • Require entities that contribute to campaigns in Washington state to certify that they are not foreign-owned or controlled.
  • Require disclosure of digital political ads generated by digital “bots.”
  • Repeal a portion of a law that exempts conservation district officials from PDC reporting.
  • Underscore that campaign funds can be used for child care expenses, if the expenses are incurred as a result of the campaign. The PDC already has a rule and guidance that supports this practice.

Filer assistance

Commissioners heard a report about PDC staff outreach efforts.

Staff members reached out to 1,100 local jurisdictions for help in updating lists and contact information for elected officials, including city, county, school district and other office holders. The information helps the agency track who needs to file financial disclosure reports and ensure that they receive reminders to file.

More than 1,200 officials had already filed the required reports as of Feb. 27 – about double the number from the preceding year. The PDC this year launched a new online application designed to streamline the reporting process and ensure more accurate reporting.

Enforcement stats

Between Jan. 9, 2020 and Feb. 18, 2020, the PDC:

  • Closed 8 cases with no evidence of violation
  • Closed 15 cases with a reminder
  • Issued 7 formal written warnings
  • Closed 32 cases administratively
  • Resolved 3 cases with a statement of understanding
  • Scheduled 2 cases for brief enforcement hearings
  • Found violations in 9 cases

Case documents can be found here.

Learn more about PDC enforcement of campaign finance laws here.

Next regular Commission meeting: March 26, 2020