July 05, 2023

The Public Disclosure Commission traveled to Spokane for its Thursday, June 22 regular meeting, as part of an ongoing effort to increase outreach to voters, candidates and the rest of the regulated community.  

“This is the first time the Commission has traveled in a very long time, if not ever, to Eastern Washington, so welcome,” said Commission Vice Chair Nancy Isserlis, who lives in Spokane. “Our plan is to take the Commission to the communities in the future as often as we can.” 

The meeting was held at the Spokane Convention Center and included discussions on implementing new legislation regarding grassroots lobbying and upcoming rulemaking on lobbyist disclosure, a presentation on the latest digital political advertising research, a briefing about concerns regarding bond and levy communications that led to two recent settlements with school districts, and enforcement matters, among other topics.   

The meeting also marked the first appearance of J. Robert Leach as a commission member, and commissioner Fred Jarrett’s last regular meeting as board chair after two years in the role.  

The board unanimously voted to make Isserlis chair and Commissioner Allen Hayward vice chair, beginning July 1. 

PDC board, staff seek input on lobbying rulemaking 

Many of the agenda items at the meeting were intended to give updates on ongoing work for the benefit of members of the public in attendance.  

PDC General Counsel Sean Flynn gave an update on upcoming lobbying rulemaking, which will include inflationary adjustments to monetary amounts in reporting, similar to those applied earlier in 2023 to campaign contribution limits and reporting thresholds. PDC staff are also working on upgrading the online lobbyist reporting system and reviewing existing rules and regulations for updates or improvements.  

The board will also consider updates to the state’s grassroots lobbying rules after the passage of House Bill 1317 earlier this year. Grassroots lobbying refers to indirect lobbying, in which groups suggest members of the public should contact their legislators to support or oppose specific legislation. 

“This is the beginning of that process and something we’ll be looking to get input on,” Flynn said.  

Board delays ruling on Zappone enforcement case until July meeting 

The Commission also considered an enforcement case against Spokane City Councilman Zack Zappone, regarding a transfer of contributions from his 2020 campaign for state House to his 2021 campaign for city council.  

Last month, the Commission issued formal guidance to campaigns to attribute leftover contributions transferred from a prior campaign for a different office and apply them toward the contributor’s contribution limits to the new campaign.  That guidance was issued after the transfers in the Zappone matter took place.  

Zappone signed a stipulation of the facts of the case, stating that he transferred $7,860 as a lump sum from his campaign for state House to his city council campaign, in accordance with guidance at the time from PDC staff. However, the transfer was inconsistent with the commission’s newer interpretation.  

The question, according to Assistant Attorney General Susie Giles-Klein, is whether the Commission should  find that Zappone’s transfer violates campaign finance rules while acknowledging that he was acting in good faith on advice given to all candidates at that point in time.  

Giles-Klein said PDC staff recommended no penalty be assessed on Zappone, and gave the Commission several options to resolve the enforcement case:  

  • Find that Zappone violated the law but not impose a penalty.  
  • Find that no violation occurred and instruct PDC Executive Director Peter Frey Lavallee to send Zappone a warning letter.  
  • Find that no violation occurred and dismiss the case.  

“While the guidance has changed … there is obviously no way Mr. Zappone and other similarly situated candidates could have known this in 2021,” Giles-Klein said.  

Zappone said that if his campaign had followed the new interpretation, he would have to refund about $500 in excess contributions.  

“It’s not really significant for me, but I think this sets a precedent for future campaigns and future complaints and that could have severe negative impacts on other campaigns and other candidates,” he said.  

Zappone also argued that penalizing candidates for following past advice of PDC staff when commissioners issue a new interpretation could make candidates less trustful of the agency in general.   

Zach Pekelis of Pacifica Law Group, representing Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s campaign for governor in an enforcement case involving transfers that happened in 2023, also expressed concern that applying the new interpretation retroactively could damage the PDC’s reputation.  

“Courts and administrative agencies have long recognized a presumption against retroactive application of statutes, regulation and interpretive rules,” he said, adding that the past guidance was contrary to current guidance, but given to candidates for nearly 30 years. 

“To apply the reversal retroactively to transfers that predate the change … would be the ultimate regulatory bait and switch,” he said.  

The board agreed to table the discussion until its July meeting, scheduled for Thursday, July 27 in Olympia.  

“This is a difficult enough issue that we need to spend some quality time thinking it through and looking at what the ramifications are,” Jarrett said.  “We don’t want to do something that is precipitous that sets a precedent that we will end up regretting in the future.” 

Board fines school board member for repeat violations 

In an unrelated enforcement matter, the board issued a $10,000 fine against a Toutle Lake School District board member for repeatedly failing to file his personal financial affairs disclosure (F-1) forms.  

The board agreed to suspend half of the $10,000 fine if it and all back fines are paid and all missing reports are filed in 30 days.  

Jonathon Rodeback has served on the school board for more than three years and is up for reelection this year. He has never filed the F-1 form. He was issued fines of $250 in 2020, $2,000 in 2021 and $3,000 in 2022, and has not paid those fines.  

The Commission noted their next step would be court action through the state Attorney General’s Office. 

School district staff say PDC guidelines on bond, levy communications hard to follow in social media age 

The PDC’s June 22 meeting also included a presentation from staff on the state’s prohibition against using public facilities – funding, materials, staff time, etc. – to promote ballot propositions such as bonds or levies.  

Two school districts recently settled complaints with PDC staff for using public facilities to promote ballot measures. Members of the Washington School Public Relations Association expressed concerns during the meeting that current PDC guidelines do not recognize the struggles of school districts to communicate with families in the digital age.  

The guidelines were last updated in 2006.  

PDC Compliance Officer Phil Stutzman acknowledged that methods for communication have changed since the law was created in 1972, but said the principles remain the same. School districts are allowed to use public funds to provide factual information as part of their normal and regular communications to their communities.  

David Biel, spokesperson for the Central Kitsap School District and past president of the WSPRA board, said, “It’s the job of school communications  professionals to inform the public about our students the state of our schools and the expenditure of tax dollars. … “Today people are flooded with information all day, every day … Our practices have had to adapt to this reality.” 

A number of other WSPRA members asked the Commission to consider updated guidance to help them follow the law but also effectively communicate levy and bond information to parents.  

Research: Digital political ads hard to track on national level for several reasons 

Washington State University professor Travis Ridout gave a presentation on his work focused on increasing transparency in political advertising.  

Since 2010, Ridout, director and professor at Washington state University’s School of Policy, Philosophy and Public Affairs, and his colleagues at the Wesleyan Media Project have tracked all political ads on broadcast and cable tv, and all digital ads since 2018.  

Tracking political ad spending is extremely complicated, Ridout said. Data collected by the Wesleyan Media Project shows digital spending on Meta, formerly Facebook, and Google on U.S. Senate and House races since January 2021 totals about $150 million.  

“You might thing that’s a really big number, but that’s probably not only half the total that was spent and we really don’t know how much in total,” Ridout said.  

Part of the problem is not all social media platforms sell political ads, and not all that do sell political ads make information on those sales available to the public, he said. Social media can also include more non-traditional political advertising, Ridout noted, which is even harder to quantify. 

“TikTok does not sell political ads but is highly desired by political campaigns for influencer marketing,” he said. “And how to we track that? Well, there’s no way to track it right now.” 

Political advertisers are on the lookout for a new social media platform with a wide reach while Facebook declines in popularity for political ads, Ridout said.  

Streaming television platforms are estimated to account for $1.2 to $1.4 billion on political ad spending in 2022.  

“This is the future,” Ridout said.