Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comments issued Tuesday by Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant.
The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission ratified a settlement agreement with City Councilmember Kshama Sawant in which the politician admitted improperly using city money and other resources to support a proposed ballot measure.
The unanimous vote Monday among six commissioners, with a seventh recusing himself, means that Sawant must pay the city $3,516, twice the amount she spent to promote a payroll tax on big businesses like Amazon.
The decision comes as a recall campaign is collecting signatures for a ballot initiative seeking Sawant’s ouster. The council member’s admission in the agreement, announced Friday, concedes one of three allegations made by the campaign — all of which she and her supporters have adamantly denied in the past.
Commissioner Judy Tobin called it cut-and-dried issue at a meeting held over Zoom.
There was, however, brief discussion as to the size of the fine, with one commissioner noting members of the public wrote in to call for as much as $100,000.
Commission Executive Director Wayne Barnett said he arrived at the fine after looking at comparable cases, the closest comparison being when former Mayor Greg Nickels in 2005 used city resources to distribute a document touting his accomplishments at a time he was running for reelection. The commission required Nickels to pay back the amount spent, not twice the amount as in the Sawant settlement, but the case law relevant to the former mayor was unclear and commissioners were divided, Barnett said.
Some commissioners also questioned whether Sawant would continue to deny the charges brought against her, despite explicitly acknowledging she violated ethics and elections codes in the agreement. A letter to the commission from John McKay, a former U.S. attorney for Western Washington representing the Recall Sawant campaign, pointed to the Kshama Solidarity Campaign website.
“Kshama did not break the law or use City resources to promote a ballot initiative,” the website stated as of late Monday afternoon. It also said the allegation is akin to charging her with a “thought crime” because Sawant merely participated in a community meeting at which the possible measure was discussed.
But according to the agreement, Sawant or her employees also created posters bearing the city seal that supported an “Amazon Tax” measure; posted hyperlinks on her council website to sites promoting the proposition; and spent at least $1,759 in city money on advertising, phone banking and mass-texting services.
Would it be appropriate, as part of the settlement, to require Sawant to refrain from making statements that contradict the very document she signed, asked Commissioiner Zach Pekelis Jones.
Sawant’s attorney, Dmitri Iglitzin, said that would amount to regulating political speech, which would exceed the commission’s authority. The commissioners dropped the matter.
Sawant has said she did not believe city officials were prohibited from supporting ballot measures not yet filed. But the commission director has consistently held that city ethics and elections codes bar officials from promoting actual or proposed measures, according to the agreement, and the state Supreme Court verified that interpretation in an April ruling.
“There is no longer any ambiguity,” Sawant’s lawyer acknowledged.
The recall campaign, which needs to get 10,000 signatures in Sawant’s District 3 by mid-October to put the matter on the ballot, also accuses Sawant of opening City Hall to Black Lives Matter protesters last June though the building was closed, and leading a march to the house of Mayor Jenny Durkan, a former U.S. attorney whose address is protected by a confidentiality program.
Some commissioners expressed concern that the commission’s actions were being conflated with the recall effort. At the same time, they asked Barnett whether anything in the settlement precluded the commission from taking up additional issues raised by the recall campaign or members of the public.
No, Barnett said. He said he had given some thought to the protest at Durkan’s house, but had not received any indication that Sawant had used her position to obtain the mayor’s address.
In a lengthy statement Tuesday, Sawant described her ethics infraction as minor and blasted the recall effort as a right-wing attempt to quash her support at City Hall for workers and renters. Other officials have settled ethics inquiries and paid fines without facing recall campaigns, she noted.
“My understanding of the rules regarding ballot initiatives was that I was allowed to use the resources of my office prior to an initiative being filed,” Sawant said. “Rather than battle further on this question, I would far rather prioritize the fight to win rent control and workers’ rights.”
She added, “There is one thing I can state unequivocally: I plead guilty to fighting unapologetically to tax Amazon and big business. I plead guilty to spending much of the year 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, fighting alongside hundreds of other activists to make Jeff Bezos fund affordable housing.”
An early version of this story mischaracterized the payroll tax on big businesses as an earnings tax.
Staff reporter Daniel Beekman contributed to this story.