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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Activist Files Ethics Complaint Against Kshama Sawant

Posted by on Wed, Mar 19, 2014 at 3:23 PM

Council Member Sawant and activist Elizabeth Campbell.
  • Photo by Kelly O/Illustration by Robert Ullman
  • Council Member Sawant on the left, activist Elizabeth Campbell on the right.
Last week, longtime neighborhood and anti-tunnel activist Elizabeth Campbell filed a complaint with both the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission and the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, alleging, among many things, that Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant has improperly used city resources for non-city business, that 15 Now should register as a campaign organization, and that Sawant should have registered herself as a union lobbyist.

"For some time now an imperceptible line, that questionably even exists, between Kshama Sawant the Socialist Alternative/$15 Now organization and campaign leader, its political lobbyist, and the union lobbyist," the complaint begins, a little less than grammatically. It cites Sawant's "use of City of Seattle facilities and resources for a campaign rally" because she had a press conference at City Hall in December and Sawant's failure to "register as a paid lobbyist with the SEEC and possibly as a lobbyist with the state Public Disclosure Commission." You can read the whole 50-page PDF right here, if you'd like.

Needless to say, some of that sounds like bullshit. But it could go somewhere interesting if (a) there are any specific violations underneath the broad strokes of the larger complaint or (b) the complaint causes either the SEEC or state PDC to create a new interpretation of rules regarding a nebulous campaign like 15 Now. (It's too early to say on both counts.)

I don't take the complaint super seriously. Granted, there are plenty of ways to run afoul of these laws, citizen complaints are great tools, and both the SEEC and PDC say they are looking into this one to determine if it has enough merit to warrant a full investigation. But to flatly assume that Sawant and these two organizations are unaware of these laws or flouting them openly and just hoping no one will notice comes across as silly.

For example, Campbell cites Sawant's Socialist State of the Union response being aired by the Seattle Channel as improper—but to imagine that the council member asked the city's TV station to film and air her speech without anyone involved ever checking in on whether that would fly with city ethics rules? Ridiculous. Every council member and legislative staffer on that floor gets ethics training from the SEEC and they're all aware of how important it is to be careful. I'd be more concerned if there were small, specific instances where she or her staffers did things that appeared to conflict with ethics laws, not this broad characterization of everything she does to push for the minimum wage hike as improper.

Campbell, for her part, hasn't returned a request for comment. She says in the complaint that she's working on behalf of her own organization, Democracy Workshop, which has been "contacted by a number of individuals and asked to review the below matter." Sawant's office says they haven't heard officially from the commission on the complaint so she can't comment specifically, but her legislative aide Joshua Koritz notes that "we've been in regular touch with the people in that department and we believe that everything we've done has been both ethical and legal."

Spokesman for Socialist Alternative, former Sawant campaign director, and 15 Now organizer Philip Locker sheds some more light on the issue. "Socialist Alternative is registered as a 501 (c) 4," says Locker, "a nonprofit social welfare organization." Same with 15 Now. "Neither are registered with the PDC or SEEC and neither are required to be," he continues. Sure, he concedes, "the media has described Socialist Alternative as a political party, [but] from a legal and tax and PDC basis, we do not fit the definition of a political party, in that we are not raising money and spending money on electoral activity." Currently, Locker points out, "there is no ballot initiative to be campaigning for. And we are not committed to a ballot initiative... 15 now is not an organization that is formed for a ballot initiative, it is a campaign to win a $15 minimum wage in Seattle and across the country."

"We have been in close contact with the SEEC, on a regular basis, and have made very effort to understand and comply with the SEEC's guidelines and rules," he concludes.

That gibes with what I heard from the PDC. While neither the PDC nor the SEEC would comment directly on a pending investigation, PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson was happy to offer basic definitions. She says a political committee is "anyone other than a candidate (or an individual who's just spending their own money) who has the expectation of receiving contributions or making expenditures to support or oppose a candidate or ballot proposition." Also, she says, state law prohibits anyone spending "taxpayer dollars to support or oppose candidates or ballot measures," with a couple of small, careful exceptions. The PDC's definition of what a ballot measure is describes any measure that is going to be submitted to the voters, starting from "the time when a proposition has been filed with an elections officer, before it gets circulated for signatures."

So on its face, the complaint doesn't seem to be very well thought-out. But that doesn't mean it won't have any ramifications. When, exactly, organizations become political could be something the city or state needs to clarify in a declaratory ruling, if they realize by looking into this complaint that the rules aren't spelled out specifically enough. It's too early to tell.

One last note: To make this whole thing funnier, Campbell (who once forgot to vote for herself when she ran for mayor) is famous for once running a petition to recall former city council member Richard Conlin and she's already filed her own $15-minimum-wage initiative with the city. Yet somehow, she manages to also take issue with the Conlin-defeating, pro-$15-minimum-wage Sawant. Magic!


Comments (20) RSS

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Typographer 1
gibe: an insulting or mocking remark.

jibe: to be in accord; to agree.
Posted by Typographer on March 19, 2014 at 3:44 PM · Report this
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn 3
...And here, at last, is Sawant's Benghazi, officially making her the most important person in Seattle.

Not because she has done so much, but because the competition has done so little.
Posted by Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn on March 19, 2014 at 3:59 PM · Report this
Fnarf 4
Imagine how much more devastating this complaint would be if it was written in English.
Posted by Fnarf on March 19, 2014 at 4:02 PM · Report this
Joe Szilagyi 5
When, exactly, organizations become political could be something the city or state needs to clarify in a declaratory ruling, if they realize by looking into this complaint that the rules aren't spelled out specifically enough.

Could this have major impacts for a lot of groups, like the myriad neighborhood and activism groups all over the city, including Campbell's own groups? Like, could the Magnolia Community Club, or a group I'm involved with, suddenly find themselves having to register?
Posted by Joe Szilagyi on March 19, 2014 at 4:09 PM · Report this
You don't have to register with the PDC simply because you have a political opinion. Definitely sounds like bullshit.
Posted by J.R. on March 19, 2014 at 4:17 PM · Report this
meanie 7
@5 which you should, I want to know which of these neighborhood groups is just a astroturf front for say a grocery union ( look at GIRFWS )
Posted by meanie on March 19, 2014 at 4:19 PM · Report this
If this were Richard Conlin, the Stranger would be all over him like shit in a Seattle dog park. But not the darling Sawant. Maybe the Stranger should have been included in the complaint under "in kind" contributions unreported.
Posted by hmmmmm on March 19, 2014 at 4:21 PM · Report this

In which case, exactly the same charges could be leveled against The Seattle Times for their support of Conlin, yes?

Sauce for goose, as the saying goes...
Posted by COMTE on March 19, 2014 at 4:27 PM · Report this
@9 Maybe. Your mistake is assuming that I care about the Seattle Times.
Posted by hmmmmm on March 19, 2014 at 4:37 PM · Report this
What does caring have to do with it? You make an accusation, and then pass off a counter-accusation as not being worthy of your "care".

What's that word we use to describe people who hold stake out a position, but balk when someone else presents a position that counters their own? No, don't tell me - it's right on the tip of my tongue...
Posted by COMTE on March 19, 2014 at 4:51 PM · Report this
How can an elected member of the City Council be considered a lobbyist? All legislators push agendas, by this logic all of them must register as lobbyists, and that's just stupid. This woman sounds like one of those activists who need to take a break from acting to think once in a while.
Posted by I have always been... east coaster on March 19, 2014 at 5:10 PM · Report this
Ballard Pimp 13
Speaking of tools, Elizabeth Campbell is one of Seattle's bigger tools. It's what right wing nutjobs do in Seattle.
Posted by Ballard Pimp on March 19, 2014 at 5:44 PM · Report this
Phoebe in Wallingford 14
@9: A newspaper does not need to register as a lobbyist, as it is a private corporation and its editorials (including political contributions) are free speech. Sawant, on the other hand, is using municipal recourses for a private interest.
Posted by Phoebe in Wallingford on March 19, 2014 at 5:58 PM · Report this
dwightmoodyforgetsthings 15
@14- You really missed out on what was going on in the post you replied to.
Posted by dwightmoodyforgetsthings on March 19, 2014 at 6:17 PM · Report this
theophrastus 16
@15 how so? the issue at hand is whether Councilperson Sawant has used public resources to further a particular and personal political agenda (one not agreed to as part of the public city council business). if, as wild example, it were shown that phil-locker, who is not an employee in any capacity of the city, were to have made use of city property, staff, time, ...even @#$'n paperclips; that would be an ethical breach.

Councilperson's Sawant's transition from an activist to a public office holder is one which should demonstrate a shift of time and resources to strictly public business when she's making use of public properties. and there is yet no clear evidence that she hasn't done so. i'm hoping she comes off clean in this. but the ethics overseers in city-hall are famously picky.
Posted by theophrastus on March 19, 2014 at 8:33 PM · Report this

"In fact I don't see too much of a contradiction between my role as an activist and my role as a councilmember"
Posted by ChefJoe on March 19, 2014 at 9:38 PM · Report this
But, as we learned with the anti-GMO groups and the trade groups collecting opposition funds, there's plenty of ways to run afoul of these rules.
Posted by ChefJoe on March 19, 2014 at 9:40 PM · Report this
This is part of the problem with these "ethics" rules, though. It is incredibly easy for ill-intentioned people to use them as weapons against political opponents. When someone is targeted with a complaint like this, they face a terrible burden of, essentially, having to prove their innocence. Especially when what we're dealing with is essentially political speech, these laws are not just a bad idea, they're unconstitutional.
Posted by Dead Justice Jackson on March 20, 2014 at 1:41 PM · Report this
dwightmoodyforgetsthings 20
@16- You go back and reread the comment chain. Phoebe replied to comment about newspaper bias, not a comment about Sawant's ethics. You (and her, if you're different people) aren't reading very well.
Posted by dwightmoodyforgetsthings on March 20, 2014 at 2:59 PM · Report this
@16, the "personal political agenda" that Sawant is pushing is one that is being discussed by every political figure and group in the City, including the Mayor, who indeed has committed to that agenda.
Posted by sarah70 on March 22, 2014 at 2:08 PM · Report this

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