Michael Walter King, the former executive director of the now defunct Senate Democratic Campaign Committee (SDCC), pleaded guilty Thursday to eight counts of theft, admitting he embezzled up to $330,000 in campaign contributions to fuel his alcohol and gambling habits.
Charged last week with four counts of first-degree theft and four counts of second-degree theft, King appeared before King County Superior Court Judge Michael Trickey for arraignment Thursday morning and pleaded not guilty to all counts. Moments later, he changed his plea, saying “guilty” eight times in response to Trickey’s queries.
Though Seattle police detectives traced King’s crimes back to March 2011, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Scott Peterson charged him only with the most recent thefts, committed in December and January, said prosecutors’ spokesman Dan Donohoe. The eight counts enabled Peterson to “get to a sentence range” of 24 to 29 months in prison for the first-degree-theft charges, he said.
King, 32, of Seattle, will serve his sentences for each count concurrently, and prosecutors will recommend he serve two years in prison and pay $250,000 in restitution when he is sentenced Nov. 22, Peterson said during the plea hearing.
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King declined to comment as he was ushered out of court by defense attorney Lyle Tenpenny. He spent about an hour at the King County Jail, where Trickey had ordered him to be fingerprinted, jail records show. He remains out of custody pending his sentencing.
King, who doesn’t have a previous criminal history, copped to the crimes when he was interviewed by police June 5, according to charging papers. He was able to swindle the campaign fund by requesting reimbursement for faked expenses, the charges say.
The charges indicate King began embezzling funds March 28, 2011, weeks after he was hired as executive director of the statewide organization that was established to help Democratic incumbents and candidates win election to the state Senate. But the ongoing thefts weren’t uncovered until after the November 2012 election when King sought to be reimbursed for thousands of dollars he said had been paid to online polling and auto-dialing companies, the charges say.
The expenditures to “obtain information from voters” to help shape campaign strategies “appeared unnecessary” given that the election was already over, according to the charges.
With suspicions aroused, the SDCC board hired a law firm to conduct an investigation, which found King had been depositing campaign funds into his own bank account, the charges say. The board members contacted police.
After King signed a release to allow detectives access to his bank records, they found he had made multiple withdrawals at area casinos, including Goldie’s in Shoreline, the Tulalip Casino in Marysville and the Silver Dollar Casino in SeaTac, according to charging documents.
Some say the thefts diverted campaign donations that could have helped Democrats maintain control over the state Senate.
In Southwest Washington last year, Democrat Tim Probst fell just 74 votes short of unseating Republican state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver. A few months later, Republicans joined with two conservative Democrats to seize control of the state Senate with a ruling “majority caucus.”
That Senate majority stymied some Democratic priorities this year, including a transportation package that could stave off looming Metro Transit bus cuts.
The SDCC’s co-chairs, state Sens. Ed Murray, Sharon Nelson and David Frockt, acknowledged the thefts may have affected the balance of power in Olympia.
“When you have a race where the margin was 75 votes … I think everything could make a difference,” Frockt said.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has cited the theft in his heated re-election campaign in which he faces Murray.
Murray has said he only became a leader of the SDCC last summer and did not have a day-to-day oversight role.
“I will bear responsibility for the last few months that I was part of the SDCC and wish that somehow we had caught it,” Murray said.
Murray said he did not think King’s misconduct should be an issue in the mayor’s race. He noted similar issues on McGinn’s watch at City Hall, including an embezzlement case in the Human Services Department, but said, “Those aren’t the issues I am going to talk about in this campaign.”
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org