Working Washington compared Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to "a subprime mob boss lording it over a company town" and cited the state law making it illegal to threaten politicians and other public employees with bodily harm or other damages, including financial harm, in an attempt to sway a vote or other official action.
Lest you believed Seattle’s head-tax debate was not already hot enough, a union-backed activist group says Amazon should be charged with a crime for its threat to roll back job growth if the Seattle City Council imposes the controversial tax aimed at helping homeless people.
The group, Working Washington, is asking Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson to charge Amazon with a Class B felony: “intimidating a public servant,” citing the company’s move to pause some construction and leasing in the city pending the outcome of the vote on the so-called “head tax.”
In an open letter to Ferguson on Wednesday, Working Washington compared Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to “a subprime mob boss lording it over a company town” and cited the state law making it illegal to threaten politicians and other public employees with bodily harm or other damages, including financial harm, in an attempt to sway a vote or other official action.
“We believe there is abundant evidence Amazon has broken that law, and we urge you to investigate and prosecute Amazon for this serious crime,” Working Washington said in its letter, contending the company had threatened “the business and financial condition of the corporate person of the city of Seattle” in order to pressure the City Council.
Amazon brought Seattle’s head-tax debate to a boil last week with an announcement that it would stop development of a 17-story downtown office tower and consider subleasing another pending the outcome of a City Council vote on the head tax, which would charge large businesses about $500 per employee annually to try to address the homelessness crisis. The tax would raise an estimated $75 million a year.
An Amazon spokesman declined to comment on Working Washington’s letter.
Brionna Aho, a spokeswoman for Ferguson, a Democrat, said he had no immediate comment on the request. But Aho noted the Attorney General’s Office does not have the authority to launch criminal prosecutions by itself — the office must receive a request from the governor or a county prosecutor.
Former state Attorney General Rob McKenna called the group’s prosecution demand absurd, saying the law in question is aimed at protecting individual public employees from personal threat, particularly of physical force.
“That’s a joke. How is the individual public official harmed substantially by Amazon’s statement they are pausing construction?” said McKenna, a Republican who served as attorney general from 2005 to 2013. “If a company were to threaten to pull out of a city altogether that would not remotely satisfy the requirements of this statute.”
Former state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge said Amazon may be playing hardball, but the company has a right to do so.
“What Amazon is doing is not a threat within the meaning of the criminal law. They can make a business decision and decide not to proceed with a project,” said Talmadge, a former Democratic state lawmaker.
Sage Wilson, a spokesman for Working Washington, acknowledged such a prosecution would be unusual but said the group is serious.
“Obviously, this would be a bold step. I am not going to pretend to you that this is a thing that normally happens,” Wilson said. But, he added, “I think the un-subtlety — and I would say brutality — of Amazon’s threat is also not a thing that normally happens.”
Dmitri Iglitzin, an attorney for Working Washington, said he was not aware of the intimidating a public-servant law being used this way before. But he said the law defines threats broadly and could be used to prosecute Amazon.
“I am just reading the law and seeing what it says,” Iglitzin said.
Backed by the powerful home-health-care worker union, SEIU 775, Working Washington has been a major player in Seattle politics, helping to secure a $15 minimum wage and other protections for low-wage workers.
McKenna said the group’s request for criminal charges against Amazon is an example of the city’s “hypercharged” political environment, and compared it with President Donald Trump’s calls to jail Hillary Clinton and other political enemies.
“It’s the endless escalation of rhetoric. It’s dangerous and troubling. I am sure Ferguson will not treat this demand seriously,” he said.
Seattle Times staff reporter Matt Day contributed to this report.