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Island County Democrats file PDC complaint
The election may be over but Island County Democrats are still fighting on behalf of their candidates.
Early last week, the party filed a complaint with the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission that alleged a mini-PAC involving Island County Commissioner Kelly Emerson ran afoul of state disclosure rules.
The state agency acts as a watchdog for campaign finance and disclosure laws with the power to investigate prospective violations and levy fines.
Duane Fulgham, chairman of the Island County Democrat party, said in an interview Friday he believed Emerson and her husband “intentionally tried to go around these rules” when it collected money for a targeted mailer.
Emerson denies the charges, claiming she had little to do with the organization and that this is just a political attack by Democrats embittered over the election that didn’t go their way.
“I was just kind of an advisor,” Emerson said. “This is just more harassment by the partisan Democratic party.”
“They don’t want me to concentrate on my job because they are afraid I’ll be effective,” she said.
Fulgham, a Clinton resident, claimed the complaints leveled against the Tea Party Republican are not politically motivated but are a matter of principle and an attempt to ensure that all parties follow the rules.
“Factually, it (the mailer) was a mess; there were a lot of misrepresentations,” Fulgham said. “But we’re not hung up with the fact that it was a bunch of B.S.”
“It’s just making sure people follow the rules,” he said.
On Oct. 7, an email with the subject, “Confidential information, Please burn after opening,” was sent out from one of Emerson’s personal email addresses. It was titled, “Help defeat the ‘Taxing Twins.’”
It outlined the formation of Islanders for Sensible Government, a small group composed of Island County residents who were working to generate funds for a targeted mailer that would be sent to about 6,000 undecided voters on Camano Island.
“We can’t afford to mail to all voters on Camano, so we are instead reaching out to independent voters. To those who can be persuaded to vote to fire the ‘Taxing Twins,’” the email said.
It went on to reference the Clean Water Utility, a series of tax increases — none of which were identified — and charged the incumbents with “quietly having discussions about another new taxing district.”
The email very specifically addressed state campaign laws, assuring readers that the effort was legal and that contributors could remain anonymous.
“Contribution limit is $500 per individual, no contributions will be disclosed (you will remain anonymous) because we will be staying under $5,000 in both contributions and expenditures,” the email said.
The complaint filed with the PDC challenged the mini-PAC with several violations, not the least of which concern anonymous donations. It also charged Emerson with breaking the $500 limit expressed in her own email with a $1,500 contribution, failing to provide records within the timeframes required by law and not keeping adequate records.
Although Emerson is writing off the charges as political attacks, the mini-PAC’s treasurer, Oak Harbor resident Bill Strowbridge, said they do have some merit and that the fault lies with him.
Strowbridge said he had worked with the PDC in the past and members of Islanders for Sensible Government were relying on him to know the rules.
“Well, Strowbridge wasn’t that smart,” he said, of himself. “I was the one making mistakes.”
It was only after Democrats began asking questions about the mailer and asking for financial records that he learned from PDC employees he had misunderstood mini-PAC requirements.
While mini-reporting rules are less stringent in some areas, it turns out detailed financial records do need to be kept and contributors cannot remain anonymous, Strowbridge said.
“It was a misunderstanding,” he said.
That misunderstanding led to the delay in providing the records as Strowbridge said he refused to provide them until he had confirmed with the PDC that that was a required step.
At about the same time, he was attending to several medical issues with his wife and a friend and that further delayed things, he said.
“I’m embarrassed,” Strowbridge said. “I wish I had been more available and understood better the requirements of mini reporting.”
Finally, the $1,500 contribution that was filed by Empower Services LLC — a business owned by Emerson and her husband — was also a case of misunderstanding the rules. Each person and a business is allowed to donate $500 and the sum included all three.
The problem was that it was sent under a single business name when they should have been submitted separately. Upon the advice of PDC workers, Strowbridge refunded the money.
Lori Anderson, spokeswoman for the PDC, confirmed Friday that the complaint had been received but that she could not yet comment on the details. Complaints are reviewed by staff and then, if warranted, are put before the commissioner for a decision.
“It’s going to take us a few weeks before we decide what happens next,” Anderson said.