State Rep. Melanie Stambaugh, R-Puyallup, will go before the Legislative Ethics Board on Tuesday, challenging the board’s initial finding that she violated ethics rules by posting state-funded photos and videos to her campaign Facebook page.
OLYMPIA — The last time a legislative ethics panel held a hearing in Washington state — 22 years ago — it involved a public official allegedly using state offices and a state computer to aid his nonprofit.
This time, it’s about what a state lawmaker can and can’t post on Facebook.
State Rep. Melanie Stambaugh, R-Puyallup, will go before the Legislative Ethics Board on Tuesday to challenge the board’s initial finding that she violated ethics rules 44 times by posting state-funded photos and videos to her campaign Facebook page.
Stambaugh, who in 2014 became the youngest woman elected to the Legislature in nearly 80 years, says that the videos and photos are public records available on the websites YouTube and Flickr, and that she shouldn’t be restricted from using them to communicate with her constituents.
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She asserts the Ethics Board is interpreting the state’s 1994 ethics law in a way that doesn’t account for how people use modern technology and that it subverts the state’s Public Records Act in the process.
“I see this as a threat to our ability to converse about government,” said Stambaugh, 26, on Thursday.
“This is about so much more than a Facebook post — this is truly about access to information in this technological age that we’re in.”
The Ethics Board says Stambaugh erred by embedding the state-produced videos on her campaign Facebook page in a way that allows them to be viewed there without leaving the site.
The videos in question are periodic updates about Stambaugh’s work in Olympia that legislative staff produced during the 2015 and 2016 sessions.
The board has previously said that lawmakers’ campaign websites can link to legislative materials and videos, but that those links must take visitors away from their campaign pages to “create an appropriate separation between the campaign and the legislative materials.”
The rules are intended to enforce the state’s ethics law that says state resources can’t be used for campaigning. The board said it was trying to strike a balance between maintaining access to public records and prohibiting the use of state resources in elections.
Stambaugh said she thinks it is important to have the embedded videos — as opposed to “unknown blue links that look like jargon” — on her Facebook page to encourage people to click on the content and get them engaged them in government.
Stambaugh has hired a lawyer who specializes in public-records cases, Nick Power, to represent her before the Ethics Board this week.
Power is asking the board to dismiss the complaints against Stambaugh and to re-evaluate its rules governing the use of legislative videos and photos on Facebook.
He said the board’s rulings infringe on Stambaugh’s First Amendment rights, while being tone deaf to how people are accustomed to interacting with content on social media.
“It’s just on a collision course with the Constitution, it’s on a collision course with the Public Records Act, and it’s on a collision course with technology,” Power said about the Ethics Board’s interpretation of state law.
“It’s something that needs to be fixed.”
The 1994 ethics law was passed after an investigation by the state Public Disclosure Commission revealed that legislative caucus staff were actively working on campaigns on state time, contrary to state law.
The ban on using public resources for campaigns is designed to avoid giving incumbents significant advantages over those who challenge them, said Marty Brown, a former legislative director and budget director for Democratic Govs. Chris Gregoire and Gary Locke.
The investigation in 1992 revealed violations, such as legislative employees going out in the field to videotape opposing candidates, producing campaign literature on state time using state equipment and recruiting candidates to run for office.
Legislative staffers also were organizing campaign fundraisers, training candidates and drafting campaign plans on state time, the investigation found.
Allen Hayward, who spent 34 years as legal counsel for House Republican leaders, said what was happening in the early 1990s “was dramatically different” from the circumstances of Stambaugh’s case.
Back then, photos and campaign pamphlets were being produced at state expense solely for use in an election, he said.
By contrast, the videos and photos of Stambaugh are considered a legitimate use of public dollars to document her work in the Legislature.
It’s just how those videos and photos are used elsewhere that poses an issue for the Ethics Board.
Hayward said he doesn’t think posting the videos on a campaign Facebook page should constitute a violation because sharing the videos online doesn’t create any additional cost to the state, unlike mailing or printing paper fliers or pamphlets.
“The public expenditure already occurred — it already happened,” Hayward said. “It was deemed perfectly appropriate state work at the time.”
While Hayward said it is possible that allowing the use of legislative videos on campaign sites could prompt lawmakers to try to make more of them during legislative sessions — the period when their production is allowed — putting a gag order on the products after the fact isn’t the right solution.
Unlike Stambaugh, most lawmakers don’t fight the Ethics Board’s decisions. Instead, they typically sign a document acknowledging they were in the wrong and agreeing to take down the content that the board said was in violation.
It’s rare for a complaint to progress to a public hearing like the one Stambaugh will have this week.
According to Ethics Board staff, the last time a similar public hearing was held was in 1994, when former Senate Secretary Gordon Golob was hauled before the Senate Board of Legislative Ethics, a predecessor to the current Ethics Board.