A Seattle police detective says Sheley Secrest appeared to put her own money into her campaign and claimed it was donated by voters in order to qualify for up to $150,000 in the city’s first-in-the-nation “democracy voucher” program. Secrest has denied wrongdoing.
Detective Lawrence Meyer’s investigation concluded that Secrest appeared to put her own money into her campaign and claimed it was donated by Seattle voters to qualify for up to $150,000 in vouchers. That is illegal. False reporting is a gross misdemeanor.
Meyer sent his investigative file and recommendation, which The Seattle Times obtained through a public-records request, to City Attorney Pete Holmes on Oct. 24. Holmes has not yet decided to press charges against Secrest, an attorney and vice president of the local NAACP chapter.
“The Democracy Vouchers program is new to the City, and this case is the first of its kind for the Criminal Division. We’re taking our time to make sure we get it right,” said Holmes’ spokeswoman Kimberly Mills in an email.
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“I’ve got no comment,” Secrest said when reached by phone.
She finished sixth in the Aug. 1 primary, with 4.5 percent of the vote, and did not advance to the fall election for City Council Position 8. She did not qualify for vouchers.
Secrest strongly denied any wrongdoing this year when The Seattle Times first reported allegations by her former campaign manager, Patrick Burke, that she used her own money for reported contributions.
Secrest dismissed Burke’s accusations as a fabrication by a disgruntled employee, whom she said she had fired. “I know he’s upset because he was terminated,” she said in an interview with The Times in August.
Meyer’s investigation supported Burke’s claims. Meyer contacted nine voters Secrest reported as contributors to her campaign. All nine told the detective they did not contribute, according to his investigative report.
56 signatures, $560
Under Seattle’s new “Honest Elections” system, voters received $100 worth of vouchers this year which they could donate to city candidates. For candidates to receive voucher money, they are required to collect 400 small contributions and corresponding signatures from Seattle voters. Elections officials then verify the signatures as a safeguard against fraudulent signatures, which were found in Portland’s public-financing system.
As Secrest got close to qualifying, she submitted 56 signatures collected June 23 that might put her over the threshold, making her eligible for $150,000 in taxpayer funds for the primary election. Each signature was accompanied by a reported $10 contribution on paperwork submitted to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. The commission oversees the voucher program.
Burke alleged that Secrest used $560 of her own money to account for the 56 contributions, money her campaign reported as coming from Seattle voters.
The Seattle Times reached five of those voters in August. All five said they did not give money to Secrest. Meyer reached three of those five, plus an additional six voters Secrest reported as contributors. According to Meyer’s report, all nine denied contributing to Secrest.
Meyer met with Secrest and her attorney Jennifer Miller in August, after The Times published its story. Secrest provided bank and credit-card records, Meyer said. But for one account, according to Meyer’s report, Secrest provided no statements later than June 21 — or just before the June 23 Trans Pride event at which she collected the 56 contributions that Burke alleged were bogus.
Meyer said he asked Secrest if she wanted to provide a statement regarding the allegations. He said she and her attorney invoked “her right not to provide a statement.”
Secrest in August did not have an explanation for why five people listed as contributors on records submitted to the city elections office told The Seattle Times they had not donated to Secrest. “I have absolutely no clue,” she said.
She said contributions were collected from all of them.
Burke said he was sitting in a car with Secrest on June 26, when she took out an envelope full of $20 bills. According to Burke, she said “that’s 560” and filled in a $10 contribution next to each of the 56 signatures. Burke said he asked Secrest where she got the money, and she replied, “off my credit card.”
“I categorically deny all of that,” Secrest told The Times. “That never, ever took place … To say we did something dishonest, that’s offensive.”
Burke said he did not disclose Secrest’s alleged wrongdoing sooner because he wanted first to receive pay he said he was owed by her campaign. He maintained he never received the money.
Detective Meyer also reported that Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission officials were concerned in March that Secrest didn’t understand the voucher-program rules, after viewing her in a KCTS 9 video about the program.
The video showed Secrest soliciting signatures inside what appeared to be a cafe but not asking for required small contributions along with the signatures. Officials contacted Secrest’s campaign treasurer, who told them the campaign understood the program’s rules, according to Meyer.
Seattle residents spent $1.14 million in “democracy vouchers” as the city launched its program this year, according to newly released data.
The program provides each registered Seattle voter with four $25 vouchers. It costs the owner of a $500,000 home about $11.50 a year.
The mayor’s race was exempt from vouchers in the program’s inaugural run.
City Council Position 8 candidates Teresa Mosqueda and Jon Grant received the most voucher support. Each raised $300,000 in vouchers, hitting a cap imposed by the program. Mosqueda won the race.
In the city attorney’s race, Holmes raised $147,125 in vouchers.