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.