He is not the first and he won't be the last, but un-candidate Dino Rossi has created a nonprofit group that looks and feels like a campaign...

He is not the first and he won’t be the last, but un-candidate Dino Rossi has created a nonprofit group that looks and feels like a campaign organization.

One key distinction is the organization, Forward Washington Foundation, can raise money and promote its president, Rossi, and his ideas without adhering to contribution limits and reporting the source of contributions. In open-books, open-records Washington, Rossi should voluntarily release the names of contributors and the contribution amounts.

Forward Washington calls itself “a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing public awareness of issues affecting the future of Washington state, its citizens and its economy.”

Rossi is traveling the state, collecting thoughts for an idea bank with hopes of presenting them to the 2008 Legislature. The latter does not pass the smirk test because Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are unlikely to provide a political soapbox to present these ideas.

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Rossi’s group could well be legal, but falls in a gray area. The group is keeping Rossi’s potential gubernatorial candidacy alive through speeches and travel.

Rossi’s fair defense is that he hasn’t decided he is running for governor in 2008. That is completely up to him — the when, the if.

But Forward Washington could become a precedent for future candidates and un-candidates. In the presidential campaign, Democrat John Edwards faces similar questions about anti-poverty groups promoting his campaign.

The state Public Disclosure Commission is doing preliminary work before beginning an investigation on Rossi’s group and may not conduct a full investigation. It should decide whether such a group is legal under campaign laws or if such activities violate the spirit of our laws, which is more likely.

Rossi is the founder of this group and its primary public speaker. He is careful not to ask for anyone’s vote, not to tell people to vote against Gov. Chris Gregoire. He is paid $75,000 by the foundation, which also covers his travel expenses.

At the very least, Rossi has a Google problem. Type in “Dino Rossi” on Google, and the first reference, “Dino Rossi & Forward Washington,” sends Web travelers to Forward Washington. But the subhead says, “Rossi for Governor Campaign Website: News and Information about Dino Rossi.”

Voters have a right to wonder why Rossi invented a group and pretends it is not part of a campaign.

Other candidates with varying degrees of separation from boards and salaries do similar things, but that doesn’t make it right. There is a national trend toward use of nonprofit groups because of the almost nonstop fundraising required.

“There does seem to be increased use of various tax-exempt entities … by individuals who are thought to be prospective candidates and in many cases do become candidates down the road,” said Paul Ryan, attorney for the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C.

Even if it is not technically required, Rossi ought to announce contributors and the amounts donated.

If he becomes a candidate, voters will like him better for running a campaign and pre-campaign above reproach. Now there’s an idea for the idea bank: Remember that in the ways of campaign disclosure, Washington thinks of itself as the Sunshine State.