Faced Tuesday with charges that she violated Seattle laws by using her public office to promote a potential “Tax Amazon” ballot measure, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant vowed to push ahead with a multipronged attempt to pass a new tax on large corporations to support affordable housing.
Sawant has pledged to propose tax legislation for council consideration and has been trying to build support for a ballot measure for voters at the same time.
“My council office has been preparing legislation to tax Amazon and big business,” Sawant said in a statement Tuesday responding to the charges brought by the executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC), Wayne Barnett. “I will be unveiling the outline of this legislation tomorrow.”
The allegations say Sawant broke two laws when her office posted links from her official council website to materials related to the “Tax Amazon” campaign that’s been gearing up to collect signatures and that she’s been helping to lead: an elections law that prohibits the use of city facilities to promote ballot measures; and an ethics law that prohibits the use of city resources for non-city purposes.
In her statement, Sawant described the matter as a misunderstanding and said her office has changed its operations to ensure compliance moving ahead.
“I look forward to meeting with the commission to resolve this matter,” she said.
But the council member also denounced the charges.
“I’m disappointed to see this complaint filed against my office and our movement,” Sawant said. “It’s shameful that while big business has license to run amok trying to bully or buy politicians … working people have to follow the most onerous of restrictions.”
Seattle City Council Insight first wrote about the SEEC allegations against Sawant.
In the charges, Barnett cited three links that appeared on Sawant’s website:
• A link to a Facebook page promoting a Jan. 25 “Tax Amazon Action Conference.” The page included the message: “Our immediate task is to file a grassroots ballot initiative this February so that we can begin collecting signatures,” and it listed Sawant as a host of the conference.
• A link to a “Resolution to Tax Amazon and Big Business” considered at the Jan. 25 conference. The resolution stated, “We will need to collect 22,000 valid signatures (likely 30,000+) of registered Seattle voters by late May in order to guarantee a spot on the November ballot,” and it listed Sawant as a coordinating committee member.
• A link to a poster for a Feb. 9 “Tax Amazon Action Conference.” The poster included the logo for Sawant’s office and the message, “Join us at our second grassroots conference: vote on a ballot initiative to put forward in 2020, and get organized to win!”
If the SEEC determines Sawant committed ethics and elections violations, it could fine her up to $5,000 per violation, Barnett said in an email.
Since winning a third term in November, Sawant has been calling for a tax on large corporations to raise money for housing and “Green New Deal” programs. Meanwhile, state lawmakers are considering a bill that would authorize King County to tax compensation paid by big businesses to employees making at least $150,000 a year.
Seattle passed a per-employee head tax on high-grossing businesses in 2018 but almost immediately repealed that measure under pressure from critics, including Amazon.
Sawant’s office has been working for weeks on legislation for the council to consider, she said in her statement Tuesday.
“At the same time, a grassroots effort has been underway to prepare for a ballot initiative, should the City Council fail to act on my legislation,” Sawant said, noting she and other activists used a similar strategy in 2014 to push for Seattle’s $15-per-hour minimum wage. “I have obviously been involved in the grassroots Tax Amazon movement, but on my personal time.”
Sawant said her staff contacted Barnett “three weeks ago … with questions about how to navigate” their legislative work and the ballot effort. Her office met with Barnett on Jan. 28, she said.
“In the meeting, we learned for the first time Barnett’s interpretation that council resources could not be used to encourage community discussions about a potential ballot initiative, even one that hadn’t been drafted or filed,” Sawant said in her statement.
“That was contrary to our previous understanding of the rule, based on our extensive interactions with (the SEEC) over the last six years. Following that meeting with Barnett, we immediately made all the necessary adjustments, separating the council office from those community discussions.”
The website links cited by Barnett predated the Jan. 28 meeting, Sawant said.
Barnett took issue Tuesday with the council member’s description of the ballot effort. “I don’t think ‘encouraging community conversations’ is what they are doing. They’re promoting a signature-gathering campaign,” he said in an email.
The last time a Seattle City Council member was fined for such violations was in 2014, when then-Councilmember Sally Bagshaw agreed to pay $150 to settle an ethics violation related to her involvement in the campaign for the creation of the Seattle Metropolitan Park District. She improperly mixed city business with campaign advocacy when she brought pro-Park District literature to a coffee hour for seniors hosted by the mayor’s office, Barnett determined in that case.