Controversial 2018 election mailers were audacious – and legal

Misleading postcards didn’t violate election laws because they touted non-candidates, the PDC found

  • Thursday, February 7, 2019 2:50pm
  • Opinion

Few can identify the legal boundaries of Washington’s campaign finance laws as precisely as Glen Morgan.

A political conservative of the Republican persuasion, he’s attained notoriety as the most prolific filer of campaign finance complaints in state history, with 428 and counting as of this week.

In late October, however, Morgan himself became the target of an unprecedented number of complaints to the Public Disclosure Commission. Collectively, they alleged that a batch of creative and audacious mailers he cooked up for the 2018 general election violated the very election laws on which he’s built his reputation.

Spoiler alert: The mild-mannered activist isn’t getting pinched for those mailers, which urged voters to back write-in candidates who weren’t actually running – a fact Morgan knew.

The pieces went to voters in four legislative districts where there were heated races for House and Senate seats. Names of the Republican and Democratic candidates were crossed out and the name of a different Democrat, described as a “real progressive,” was scrawled next to a write-in box.

Each postcard made a convincing case, and included an excerpt of an endorsement from the Progressive Voters Guide compiled by Fuse, a statewide coalition of labor and social progressives.

The content was accurate – though not for the 2018 election. It came from years earlier, when the purported write-in candidates were actually on ballots seeking elected office and got Fuse’s backing.

That’s what torqued progressives and spurred them to file 45 complaints. The fliers used that old stuff to attack a current crop of Democratic candidates. They considered it a manipulative strategy intended to divert votes from their endorsed hopefuls. In one race, which their candidate lost by 484 votes, some thought it worked.

Staff of the Public Disclosure Commission concluded Morgan didn’t cross any legal lines. Their read is that state law bars mailers from containing false statements of material facts against a declared candidate. In this instance, everything said in the mailers concerned non-candidates, and thus were outside the scope of the law.

“We’re a little bit shocked and appalled by the PDC’s response to the complaints,” Aaron Ostrom, Fuse’s executive director, said Monday. “It seems like a clear and compelling violation of the spirit of the law, and very sketchy as concerns the letter of the law as well. Hopefully, the Legislature will decide this kind of deception and fraud needs to be eliminated.”

They also wish Attorney General Bob Ferguson had weighed in on whether Morgan’s ingenuity exceeded legal limits.

Peter Lavallee, the commission’s executive director and a former spokesman for Ferguson, did ask his former boss for an informal reading of the situation. Although his team had reached its conclusion pretty quickly, Lavallee figured a second opinion couldn’t hurt.

Lavallee made the request Nov. 8, aware of an approaching deadline for some kind of resolution.

Under a new state law, the commission had 90 days from the receipt of the first complaint to do something – act on it, dismiss it, investigate it further or refer it to the attorney general if the A.G. hadn’t already requested the agency do so. The deadline was Jan. 18, which gave Ferguson about 75 days.

Lawyers for a coalition of complainants, including Fuse, very much wanted Ferguson involved. They wrote him Nov. 27, sharing what they considered to be errors in the PDC’s thinking and urging him to engage.

Lavallee and Co. didn’t get a response, though on the day before the deadline Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey Even did offer to provide an opinion at some point in the future if it would help. Lavallee politely decided to withdraw the request.

The situation played out pretty much as Morgan had anticipated. He wondered how anyone could have thought he would violate laws he wields against others literally every day.

He didn’t think it had much impact on the election.

“But it certainly generated a heckuva lot of free media,” he said.

And, if lawmakers do make reforms, he predicts it could result in a “field day for me to file complaints.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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