Speaking remotely from Spokane, Public Disclosure Commission Chair Nancy Isserlis began the Commission’s regular Oct. 26 meeting with comments about the success of the agency’s second engagement session, held on Oct 17.
The session invited discussion on two topics: Upcoming rulemaking on grassroots lobbying disclosure requirements to incorporate changes to state law, and guidance provided to local governments and school districts to promote compliance with the law that prohibits the use of public office or agency facilities in campaigns.
Commission, Executive Director discuss challenges, successes as compliance caseload grows
As the number of new complaints to the Public Disclosure Commission continues to increase both in volume and complexity, Executive Director Peter Frey Lavallee told Commissioners on Oct. 26 that they agency may be reaching the point at which it will need to request more resources from the state Legislature.
“We are a small agency with limited resources,” he said, adding that since 2018, the agency has eliminated a backlog of nearly 600 cases thanks to increased funding from the Legislature. “We may very well be finding ourselves in a similar situation.”
Currently the agency has just over 100 open cases.
Frey Lavallee spoke partly in response to public comment earlier in the meeting from Conner Edwards, a professional campaign treasurer who also recently filed a complaint alleging late reports in more than 300 campaigns.
Edwards said the agency is failing in its mission to enforce campaign finance law while holding compliant campaigns to “one of the most burdensome set of campaign finance requirements in the country.”
Frey Lavallee countered that the PDC and Washington state has been lauded for its work on political transparency by organizations including the Coalition for Integrity, OpenSecrets.org, the Center for Public Integrity and the Institution for Corruption Studies.
“I think the regulations and laws that we enforce have proven to be of great service to the public and the interest of transparency and disclosure,” he said.
Frey Lavallee noted there are opportunities for the agency to be more proactive, but said with a significant increase in volume of new complaints from a handful of frequent complainants, many of them very complicated and involving multiple allegations of violations, staff are already at capacity. Complaints filed with the PDC take precedence under state law, which requires action within 90 days.
“Lobbing hundreds of complaints over the transom at the PDC doesn’t help us get to the most important violations. We take them as they come and we treat every complaint seriously,” he said.
PDC seeks feedback on grassroots lobbying rules
The Commission heard a brief update on work to update rules related to lobbying activities in advance of the 2024 legislative session.
The agency is taking public comment on draft rules including grassroots lobbying activities and inflationary adjustments for lobbying reporting thresholds. Both will be the subject of public hearings during the PDC’s regular meeting on December 7.
The proposed rules include proposed definitions grassroots lobbying, more information on how sponsors should report their activities and more.
The commission also plans to consider inflationary adjustments to lobbying reporting thresholds. In 2023, the commission approved inflationary adjustments to campaign contributions and reporting thresholds for candidates and committees, and is now continuing that work with lobbyist reporting.
See the draft rules being considered below:
To comment on the draft rules proposals, email email@example.com.
Past guidance on legislative freeze period upheld
Earlier this year, the Commission denied a petition for declaratory order from Blue Wave Political Partners asking for clarification to whether the legislative freeze period outlined in RCW 42.17A.560, which prohibits campaign fundraising during the legislative session, also applies to state employees running their own campaigns for a non-legislative office.
While the Commission denied the petition, it instructed staff to bring back more information so it could consider whether to offer further guidance or a new interpretation of the law.
PDC General Counsel Sean Flynn provided a memo noting the Commission had last considered the same issue in 2017, and at that time came to the conclusion that the freeze did apply to legislative staff working on their own campaigns.
Agreeing that the previous guidance was supported by the law, Commission members declined to issue a formal interpretation.
Bill to re-codify PDC law likely in upcoming legislative session
Sen. Andy Billig of the 3rd Legislative District in Spokane – Washington Senate Majority Leader since 2018 – spoke with the Commission during its Oct. 26 meeting about the upcoming legislative session and bills affecting the PDC.
The Legislature will again be taking up a bill requested by the PDC in the 2023 session that passed in the Senate but failed to move forward in the state House. One issue in the House version of the bill, dealing with the state law requiring campaigns to collect certifications that campaign contributions were not financed or influenced by foreign nationals, will be presented in its own bill in the 2024 session, Billig said.
Another bill that failed to advance last year, ESSB 5207, will also be reintroduced this year. That bill would both propose that LLCs share a contribution limit if the same individual owns or holds a majority interest in each entity, and prevent the formation of an LLC expressly for the purpose of making campaign contributions, Billig told the Commission.
Billig also discussed an upcoming bill likely to be introduced by Sen. Sam Hunt, of the state’s 22nd Legislative District in Olympia, that would recodify public disclosure law within the Revised Code of Washington.
Currently, public disclosure law in Washington is a part of chapter 42.17a, a part of Title 42. Billig said the move would “streamline and restructure” the law. The Commission has not taken a formal position on the proposed bill.
The PDC continues to experience an increase in volume of complaints. Between September 21 and October 16, the agency received 58 new complaints, with an additional 21 complaints awaiting initial processing as of the morning of Oct. 26.
As of Oct 16, the PDC had 103 open cases. During the period of Sept. 21 to Oct 16, the agency completed three initial hearings and resolved 26 cases, excluding group enforcement cases involving late or missing reports.
Two cases were dismissed for having no evidence, and one was resolved under local law. In that case, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission investigated and resolved a complaint regarding RCW 42.17A.320 for failure to have sponsor ID on advertisements.
Another 20 cases were resolved through the issuance of a formal warning letter. In case 139323, the Hilary Franz campaign was issued a formal warning concerning failure to timely report expenditures, including debts and orders placed for work performed to benefit her 2024 campaign for Governor.
One case was resolved with a statement of understanding, and two violations were found by the Commission.