Washington governor’s race sparks stricter campaign-finance rule

AG Bob Ferguson's $1.3M transfer, an attorney turned ‘finance gadfly’ and a Public Disclosure Commission vote that could shake up the election.

A picture of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who is running for governor.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson. (Courtesy of Bob Ferguson)

Washington’s high-profile governor’s race is changing the way campaign fundraising is reported and counted. That change is shining a spotlight on Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s campaign for governor after his large transfer of funds from past campaigns to his current race.

In May, the state Public Disclosure Commission voted to approve a new interpretation of state law that tightens requirements around the transfer of surplus campaign dollars by a past candidate seeking a different office.

The decision by the PDC, which oversees Washington’s campaign-finance system, changes a longstanding practice. In past years, a state lawmaker could accumulate campaign donations and then transfer them to a bid for a different statewide office later on, provided the original donors were notified and approved the transfer. Those donors’ identities didn’t need to be disclosed to the public as part of campaign fundraising reporting to the PDC.

But those previous donations must now be individually listed and counted as contributions in the current cycle. That means a campaign donor who contributed a maximum amount in a previous year can’t give another a maximum amount for the new race if their previous donation was transferred. Individual donors can give a maximum $2,400 to a candidate’s campaign for statewide office.

Now Ferguson faces two campaign-finance complaints after shifting $1.3 million in old campaign money to his current 2024 bid for governor.

Ferguson’s campaign made many of those transfers shortly before the PDC vote – but some commission members have signaled that the new interpretation could be applied retroactively, since it covers existing law.

More complaints against elected officials could follow. Another, unrelated complaint has now been made regarding an alleged violation of campaign surplus transfer involving a 2021 campaign for Spokane City Council; more could follow.

That complaint was made by Glen Morgan, a conservative political activist who has been known to file a stream of complaints with the PDC. But Morgan on Thursday said that PDC staff added that part of the complaint to other alleged violations that he had filed.

In an email, Ferguson campaign manager Wellesley Daniels said that making the interpretation retroactive is “illegal and unfair.”

"Like every other campaign for more than 20 years, the Ferguson campaign strictly followed the commission’s explicit guidance on surplus funds,” Daniels wrote in a statement. “The campaign has followed and will continue to follow the new guidance. It is, however, illegal and unfair for the commission to apply this change retroactively, and punish campaigns that adhered to the commission’s published guidance."

According to Kim Bradford of the PDC, the question of transferring campaign surplus funds was brought to the PDC’s attention in March by an attorney whose firm is employed by the gubernatorial campaign of Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz. First elected to the post in 2016 and reelected in 2020, Franz had roughly $18,000 in her own surplus campaign account as of late last month, according to state records.

In April, Tallman Trask, a Seattle attorney who describes himself as “a bit of a campaign finance gadfly,” filed a petition asking the PDC to review the practice.

In an interview, Trask, one of two citizens now lodging complaints against the Ferguson campaign, said that disclosures of individual donors are “at the core at what campaign finance laws strive to be.”

“They say there are limits in any given campaign and any given cycle to make sure candidates are not beholden to monied interests,” he said. “And when we’re talking about the ability to sort of stretch large donations over the years ... we’re really kind of undermining that structure.”

Trask said he wants the PDC to compel the Ferguson campaign to disclose the list of donors who allowed the transfer of the $1.3 million to his gubernatorial bid.

The PDC is reviewing the two complaints as one case and has not yet set a hearing date, according to Bradford.

In late June, Franz reported moving $1,250 from her surplus account from two donors – which the campaign named in a filing – who authorized that money to be moved.

In a statement, Franz said: “Bob - it’s time to play by the same rules as all other candidates.”

Meanwhile, a PDC complaint has been filed against Franz for allegedly using funds from her lands commissioner election account for activities related to her governor campaign without making a transfer of surplus funds. 

Franz spokesperson Jack Sorensen dismissed the complaint as "a total nothingburger."

The billings cited in the complaint were work that was being done on a potential reelection campaign for lands commissioner before Franz decided to run for governor, he said.

Ferguson’s camp aren’t the only ones peeved by the change. In May, King County Metropolitan Council Vice Chair Reagan Dunn testified against the move, saying it could hurt potential GOP candidates with money in their surplus accounts who try to make a bid in a state that currently has elected Democrats to all statewide offices.

In an interview this week, Dunn, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully last year for U.S. Congress, said that changing the interpretation of the law in the middle of a campaign cycle “feels like the PDC was putting the finger on the scale a little.”

“My view on that stuff is that you make the change right after the election,” Dunn said. “It’s about certainty and predictability” for candidates.

Morgan, the conservative political activist who frequently files PDC complaints, said he thought the agency's reasoning for the change made sense: "There's logic to it that probably should have been addressed years ago."

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