In addition to ethics charges against Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, city and state regulators must also pursue the council member’s apparent campaign violations.
Sawant appears to have violated both ethics and campaign rules while leading a political committee and organizing events pursuing a “tax Amazon” ballot measure.
Regardless of what one thinks about Amazon and Seattle’s need for more tax dollars, politicians must follow ethics and campaign-disclosure rules. They apply to everyone from Sawant to President Donald Trump.
Sawant’s past behavior generated at least six ethics and election complaints. Yet until now, Seattle’s Ethics and Elections Commission declined to charge her with any violations.
The commission is still holding back, however. Its executive director charged Sawant only with ethics violations and let pass her flouting of campaign-disclosure rules. The commission should reconsider and enforce campaign rules just as assertively in this case, as should the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Both the ethics and campaign-reporting violations are clear. They are not excused by Sawant changing gears this week and directly proposing a punitive business tax.
On the ethical front, it’s against city code to use city facilities to promote ballot measures. Yet Sawant’s official council website provided links to a committee and events promoting the tax measure in January.
That prompted Wayne Barnett, the Seattle commission’s executive director, to charge Sawant on Feb. 10 with “material violations” of the ethics code. The commission will consider the charges on March 4.
Seattle’s code also says political committees must file disclosure statements, informing the public of their existence and activity. This must be done no later than “two weeks after the date when they first have the expectation of receiving contributions or making expenditures in any election campaign.”
Evidence in the ethics charge includes a list of committee members presented at a Jan. 25 conference in a private venue and advertised with posters with the city seal. “Our immediate task is to file a grassroots ballot initiative to Tax Amazon and big business so that we can begin collecting signatures,” the resolution states. At that point the committee had expectations of making expenditures, had already spent money to advance the ballot measure and had not filed the required disclosure statement.
Sawant is listed as co-chair, along with activist and former mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver. Other members include representatives of unions and political groups.
Barnett is wary of pursuing campaign charges because of a state Supreme Court ruling last year. That case involved an unusual dispute over whether legal advice provided after initiative signatures were gathered should be reported as campaign spending.
In a 5-4 ruling, the court majority said that spending should be reported. It also tried to resolve ambiguity about whether spending should be disclosed before or after initiative signatures are gathered. In doing so it appeared to create a loophole, allowing spending on ballot measures to go unreported and remain secret until measures are submitted to an election office.
A sharply dissenting opinion noted that case was an anomaly, involving small, non-charter cities. It said the majority misinterpreted the law’s intent; legislators could have wanted “pre-ballot” disclosure for statewide measures “and in the big cities where the political stakes, moneyed interests and potential for mischief might be considered greatest.”
Seattle’s election rules are less ambiguous. They demand prompt disclosure when campaign spending is foreseen. The rules demand “political campaign contributions and expenditures be fully disclosed to the public” and state “that the people have the right to expect from their elected representatives the utmost of integrity, honesty and fairness in their dealings.”
Rather than avoiding enforcement because of a wobbly court ruling, Seattle should use Sawant’s clear violation as an opportunity to affirm its broad campaign-disclosure rules. The state Public Disclosure Commission should follow suit.
If either results in a court challenge, that’s a prime opportunity to clarify that the people of Seattle and Washington expect full disclosure of political spending, not secrecy until ballot measures are fully baked and filed.
Sawant, meanwhile, should decide whether to lead political campaigns or represent constituents. If she wants to lead campaigns, she should resign her council seat, but she’ll have to follow the rules either way.