Don Benton, a former GOP Washington state senator and a Donald Trump appointee, is responsible for last week’s mailer criticizing Democratic lawmakers for a proposed change to the estate tax, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Benton was named as the respondent in a commission investigation into a trio of complaints alleging the mailer lacked disclosure information.
Postmarked from Portland without identifying a group or sponsor, the mailer featured a man in a suit, holding a bunch of cash, and a stricken-looking family with a dire warning about proposed House Bill 1465.
The campaign-style mailer — which targeted at least half a dozen Seattle-area Democratic state lawmakers — claimed that the bill would impose a 40% estate tax on people and small businesses.
That bill would raise the threshold of the existing estate tax, meaning fewer people would pay it, and expand the tax at the higher end, meaning wealthier people would pay more than they do.
Under the proposal — which is likely dead for the year — people with taxable wealth above $1 billion would pay 40%.
Benton confirmed to the commission that he was the sender, agency spokesperson Kim Bradford wrote in an email.
“Don Benton was among the people who have reached out to us this month to inquire about reporting grassroots lobbying,” Bradford wrote. “After the complaints were received, we reached out to him to ask whether he was the sponsor of the mailer. Benton confirmed he was.”
In an email Wednesday morning, Benton didn’t confirm or deny that he was the source of the mailer.
“Educating voters as to what kind of bills their Representatives sponsor in the legislature is important work,” Benton wrote. “I suggest that if legislators are embarrassed by the voter education effort on HB 1465 or any other bill, they probably shouldn’t sponsor bills that will hurt families in their district like this one does!”
State law requires a sponsor to be listed on campaign mailers. But that isn’t necessary for communications known as “grassroots lobbying,” which focus instead on the debate over legislative proposals.
A disclosure report to the commission on the mailing isn’t immediately required and is due in the coming weeks.
“We may determine that it was not political advertising and review the activity under another section of the law,” Bradford wrote.
While the commission has the authority to issue a $10,000 penalty per violation, according to Bradford, cases rarely rise to that level.
Most complaints generally result in a finding of no actual violation, or a warning about following the law, or a statement of understanding where the respondent pays a small penalty and admits to a violation, she wrote.
Benton, a longtime state lawmaker from Vancouver, co-chaired Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign in Washington state. The former president appointed Benton — whom Trump reportedly nicknamed “Big Don” — as a senior White House adviser and leader of a transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency.
In April 2017, Benton was appointed director of the Selective Service System.
During his time in that role, Benton and top aides quietly and unsuccessfully pushed to move the federal agency’s headquarters from the vicinity of Washington, D.C., to downtown Spokane.