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Democratic embezzlement may have tipped legislative control

Washington State Capitol Credit: Washington State House Democratic Caucus/Flickr

Did a high-ranking Democratic Party official's gambling and drinking cost his side control of the state Senate — squashing the legislative Dems' overall agenda?

No one can really know for sure. But the possibility is definitely there.

The King County Prosecutor's Office on Tuesday filed eight charges of theft against Michael W. King, former executive director of the Washington State Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. He confessed to embezzling $250,000 to $300,000 in Democratic campaign money, according to court records. No bail was requested.

In December, a recount gave the Vancouver-area 17th District's Senate seat to conservative incumbent Don Benton. He won with 71 votes over Democratic challenger Tim Probst out of roughly 55,000 votes cast. That set up a Senate spit of 26 Democrats and 23 Republicans, setting up the math that prompted disenchanted Democratic Sens. Rodney Tom of Medina and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch to switch sides to create the 25-member Majority Coalition Caucus. The coalition was the dominant force in the 2013 legislative session.

"We had a race where 71 votes won. … I think everything makes a difference," said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle.

Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Vashon Island, said: "If we had those funds, we probably could have had (extra) ads on TV, and could've helped Tim Probst."

Those two plus Senate Minority Leader and Seattle mayoral candidate Ed Murray, D-Seattle, discussed the charges and the political situation with the press Wednesday in a teleconference. The trio has co-chaired the Senate election committee since mid-2012, although Murray took his slot in the spring 2012.

The Democratic senators said the embezzled money probably would have paid for some polls —in order to cover up his thefts, King  allegedly faked results of polls for which he had supposedly paid — and for television advertisements in tight races. The Benton-Probst face-off was the tightest and most critical in the 2012 state legislative elections.

Frockt said the party's six or seven biggest polls were properly conducted, but questions exist on how many auto-dialed daily tracking polls were actually conducted in last year's elections. "It's clear some of these didn't take place. We're not clear on which ones," Frockt said.

"We were intentionally given bad data," Nelson said.

King admitted to a Seattle police detective interviewing on June 5 that he stole the money, according to court records. "I did these things and I have to accept (the) consequences and I do," King told detective Keith Savas in that interview. Savas said in the records that King told him the stolen money is "probably north of $200,000, maybe you know up to $300,000."

King allegedly told Savas that he stole the money because he had gambling and drinking problems. Court records said much of the embezzled money went to Goldie's Casino in Shoreline, the Tulalip casino at Marysville and the Silver Dollar Casino in SeaTac. Murray, Frockt and Nelson said King showed no indication of any gambling and drinking problems when they dealt with him. "Michael was a trusted employee," Nelson said.

The committee's three previous co-chairpersons  — Sens. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane and now retired; Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor and now a U.S. Congressman; and Scott White, D-Seattle, who died in late 2011 — hired King as executive director in early 2011. His job included processing donations and reallocating that money to various campaign efforts. The police investigation covered the time from March 2011 to January 2013.

The committee's executive director traditionally did not have check-signing powers. But King asked for and received check-signing powers in February 2012, court records said. Nelson, Murray and Frockt were not consulted on that decision, said Paul Lawrence, an outside attorney that the committee hired to look into the matter.

"Suspicions of financial irregularities came to light after a review of expenditures revealed what appeared to be significant payments made by King from SDCC accounts to online polling and auto-dialing campaigns made after the November 2012 elections. … Those payments however were made for services performed well after the November 2012 elections where the need for such services is limited," Savas wrote in the court records.

Jason Bennett of Argo Strategies — and treasurer of the committee since 2006 — discovered accounting irregularities in February 2013 and notified Murray, Frockt and Nelson in February 2013.

Murray said, "We did what leaders should do. We went to the authorities. … I bear responsibility for the last few months (of King's tenure and embezzlements)." But Murray said King's hiring in 2011 "doesn't reflect on me."

This matter could raise questions on Murray's managerial record as he runs for Seattle mayor against incumbent Mike McGinn. Murray speculated that other city issues will overshadow this affair in mayoral race.

The committee also hired the Pacifica Law Group — including Lawrence and fellow attorney Greg Wong — for its own internal investigation. Pacifica looked at $327,023 in transactions and narrowed that to a still-fluid estimate of $250,000 to the $300,00 of actual embezzled cash.

On Tuesday, King was charged with four counts of first-degree theft —the amounts being greater than $5,000 — and four counts of second-degree theft with the amounts being between $750 and $5,000. Lawrence said the standard sentencing range on this crime is 22 to months to 29 months in prison.  Lawrence said a bargain is in the works for King to plead guilty in early October in return for two years in prison and paying restitution.

But King County Prosecutor's Office spokesman Dan Donohue and King's attorney Lyle Tenpenny could not be reached late Tuesday to verify whether a plea bargain is in the works.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.

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