The Seattle political consulting firm Moxie Media was hit with one of the biggest fines in state history for a 2010 campaign scheme that helped oust a Democratic state senator. Some hoped the bad publicity would harm business this election season, but that's not what happened. Moxie Media had a big year.
If you were looking for another small reminder of why political campaigning is sometimes known as the dark arts, consider the case of Moxie Media.
Last December, the Seattle political consulting firm agreed to pay the state $290,000 in fines and legal costs — one of the largest settlements of its kind in Washington — for a campaign scheme that helped oust a Democratic state senator from Everett.
Moxie shuffled money among shell committees during the 2010 primary to promote a little-known Republican and conceal the source of misleading robocalls and mailers against then-state Sen. Jean Berkey. She had been targeted by unions, trial lawyers and other groups who backed a more liberal Democratic rival.
Moxie’s tactics were widely condemned, and some critics suggested the firm should be shunned to show that such dirty campaign tactics would not be tolerated.
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And how’d that work out?
Moxie’s business doubled. The firm landed some of the most coveted Democratic political contracts of 2012, grossing nearly $2 million for state-level consulting and direct-mail work, according to state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) filings. That’s twice Moxie’s 2010 haul, PDC records show.
The firm sent more than 2 million mailers for the pro-gay marriage Referendum 74 campaign and another 1.5 million for unions and environmental groups supporting Democrat Jay Inslee in the gubernatorial race, said Lisa MacLean, Moxie’s principal.
“Moxie Media is feeling especially thankful this year … ” MacLean wrote in a pre-Thanksgiving email to clients and others trumpeting the firm’s 2012 successes.
Asked in an interview whether publicity over the PDC case had actually boosted her business, MacLean paused: “In some ways, you know when you go through something like this with clients, it can be a test of loyalty. It can be bonding,” she said. “With certain people, it may have helped, and with certain people, it may have hurt.”
Those who hired Moxie argued the firm’s transgressions were blown out of proportion, and that MacLean’s company continues to win work because of its skill in targeted political mailings.
Berkey said the unsurprising lesson is that for many in politics, winning is all that matters.
“They were successful, and that brand of ethics has been approved by the people who are working with them,” said Berkey, who lost the 2010 primary by 122 votes after being targeted by Moxie’s scheme. The fine, Berkey said, “was very ineffective and it became a cost of doing business.”
The effort to defeat Berkey was part of a 2010 campaign by unions and other liberal Democratic groups to elect lawmakers more sympathetic to their views that the state needed to raise taxes and avoid further budget cuts.
In Berkey’s case, unions and other groups supported a rival Democrat, Nick Harper, who was challenging her re-election bid in the 38th Legislative District, which covers Everett and Marysville.
The vast bulk of that campaign was a standard political argument from the left, seeking to persuade more-liberal Democratic voters to back Harper.
But as insurance to take Berkey out in the top-two primary, MacLean also hatched a stealthy campaign to boost little-known Republican Rod Rieger.
Even though Moxie was working for progressive Democratic groups, the firm created shell committees called “Conservative PAC” and “Cut Taxes PAC,” which criticized Berkey for supporting tax increases.
MacLean ran the scheme by leaders of unions and other groups supporting Harper, asking for money to fund the effort. She promised to conceal their involvement until after the primary, a PDC investigation found.
“I am trying to provide as much cover to funders as possible … money will not move until after the primary,” she wrote in one email obtained by the PDC.
Some union leaders were uncomfortable, with the tactic, but Moxie lined up enough support to move forward, other emails showed.
Just before the August 2010 primary, thousands of Republican-leaning voters in Berkey’s district received mailers hailing Rieger as a fiscal conservative who would fight for smaller government.
MacLean also recorded robocalls to conservative voters, posing as “your neighbor, Emma … a lifelong Republican.” “Emma” told voters she’d previously voted for Berkey, but boasted that “We finally have a good Republican candidate to support” in Rieger.
Berkey placed third in the primary, just behind Rieger. Harper, who won the primary, coasted to victory in the general. Moxie and its allies got what they wanted.
Blowback was huge
But Moxie’s scheme caused immense blowback among both Republicans and Democrats, with some calling for the election results to be set aside.
There is no law against misleading or even lying to voters to win an election.
The PDC investigation focused on what might be viewed as a technicality: Moxie’s failure to properly report a $9,000 pledge to pay for its plan to pump up Rieger, the Republican.
An initially proposed $30,000 settlement of the case was rejected in October 2011 by PDC commissioners, who said Moxie’s “mind boggling” and “reprehensible” actions had made a mockery of disclosure laws.
The case was referred to the state Attorney General’s office, which sued Moxie, MacLean and business partner Henry Underhill.
That case was resolved with last December’s $290,000 settlement. Moxie won’t have to pay $140,000 of that if the firm stays out of trouble through 2015. The case led the state Legislature to approve a new law tightening disclosure requirements for political committees.
Although she acknowledges mistakes, MacLean says she never intended to break the law and doesn’t think what she did was dishonest.
“Political shenanigans have been around since the beginning of time,” MacLean said. “It’s what political consultants do. They work right up to the edge of the law. It’s an industry built on that.”
This year’s employers
Those who hired her this year said they weren’t bothered by the PDC flap, given MacLean’s otherwise clean track record.
“They had this unfortunate incident, and we weighed that against the assets they brought to the campaign and we decided it was the right thing to do,” said Zach Silk, campaign manager for Washington United for Marriage, the pro-gay marriage campaign that hired Moxie for more than $1.1 million of work.
“I felt like she paid her dues,” said Brendon Cechovic, executive director of Washington Conservation Voters, which paid more than $350,000 to Moxie for mailers backing Inslee in the governor’s race.
While Cechovic said the WCV board discussed the PDC case before awarding the contract, “It was about a 30-second conversation.”
So that PDC fine? Maybe it didn’t sting so much after all.
MacLean said legal agreements prohibit her from disclosing whether unions or other clients helped pay the fine, as has been rumored in political circles.
MacLean said in accepting the settlement, she had to forgo a chance to prove in court that Moxie did not intentionally flout campaign laws. It also spared any potential further embarrassment to her clients.
“That has been a business decision that turns out may have been a pretty good decision,” she said.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.