In a politically charged case creating ripples from the state Capitol to the Seattle mayoral race, the former executive director of the state Senate Democratic Campaign Committee (SDCC) has been charged with embezzling at least $250,000 in campaign donations to fuel his alcohol and gambling problems.
Michael King faked polling results and other expenses and wrote himself checks from the Democrats’ campaign account between 2011 and early 2013, according to charging papers filed by the King County Prosecutor’s Office on Tuesday afternoon.
King, 32, of Seattle, is charged with eight counts of theft carrying a possible sentence of 22 to 29 months, the Prosecutor’s Office said. He is set to be arraigned Oct. 7.
The alleged thefts diverted campaign donations that could have helped Democrats maintain control over the state Senate.
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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.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, 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.
Nelson said, “If we had had those funds we potentially could have been on TV and done a better job for Tim Probst.”
Murray, who is in the middle of a heated campaign to unseat Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, 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.”
Although McGinn allies have questioned Murray’s role in the case for months, the mayor’s re-election campaign said it had no comment on the matter Wednesday.
The alleged thefts came to light in February after the SDCC’s then-treasurer, Jason Bennett, noticed the suspicious expenses submitted by King. He informed the co-chairs of the committee, who hired a private law firm to investigate and notified police.
King acknowledged the thefts during an interview with prosecutors. “I did these things and I have to accept consequences and I do,” he said, according to the charging papers.
Bank records examined by police revealed deposits to King’s personal accounts corresponding with “reimbursements” from the SDCC, and “many dozens” of withdrawals at Goldie’s Shoreline Casino in Shoreline, the Tulalip Casino in Marysville, and the Silver Dollar Casino in SeaTac.
King’s attorney did not return phone calls requesting comment Wednesday.
Prosecutors put the total thefts at between $250,000 and $300,000.
In a joint statement released Wednesday, Frockt, Murray and Nelson accepted limited blame for failing to prevent King’s fraud.
They said “the responsibility for stealing lies with Mr. King” but acknowledged their own “responsibility for a system of controls that were not sufficient when there was a trusted employee determined to exploit any gaps that, in hindsight, existed.”
But the Democrats also pointed fingers at Bennett, the SDCC’s former treasurer. They noted that King’s embezzlement accelerated after February 2012, when he asked for and was granted authority by Bennett to write checks directly from the campaign account.
Bennett said his contract did not make him responsible for verifying the expenses being submitted by King, but merely to ensure the campaign donations and expenditures were properly filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission.
However, Paul Lawrence, an attorney for the Democrats, disputed Bennett’s account.
“He was not being paid the money he was being paid just to be a scrivener,” Lawrence said on the conference call with reporters. Records show Bennett’s firm was under contract to be paid $2,500 a month by the SDCC.
An anguished Bennett said his reputation as a political consultant has suffered as a result of the case, and that SDCC leaders have “waged war” on him for months. Bennett said he did not want to play the blame game.
“It isn’t about failed financial controls or Ed Murray not watching the henhouse. This is a guy we all trusted … and he lied, manipulated and used us for months,” he said.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner