Five voters contacted by The Seattle Times said they did not contribute to candidate Sheley Secrest in her bid for democracy vouchers, although her campaign reported they did. Secrest strongly denies any wrongdoing. Seattle police are now investigating.
Seattle police are investigating a City Council campaign after an allegation that it tried to defraud Seattle’s first-in-the-nation, taxpayer-funded “democracy voucher” program.
The police inquiry comes after a former campaign manager for Sheley Secrest went to city elections officials to accuse Secrest of putting her own money into the campaign and claiming it was donated by Seattle voters.
The Seattle Times reached five of those voters. All five said they did not give money to Secrest.
“No, I did not make a contribution,” said Jennifer Estroff. “I’m very confident of that.”
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“I definitely did not give a donation,” said Robert Carson. “That’s definitely false.”
Seattle police Deputy Chief Carmen Best said that because of the investigation, “it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.”
Secrest, an attorney and vice president of the local NAACP chapter, 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.
Secrest strongly denied the allegation Wednesday, dismissing it as a fabrication by her disgruntled former campaign manager Patrick Burke, whom she said she fired. “I know he’s upset because he was terminated,” she said.
She maintained the campaign did not take any shortcuts or violate any ethics. “Nothing has been filed against me. There have been no complaints,” she said.
She 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 did not donate to Secrest. “I have absolutely no clue,” she said.
She said contributions were collected from all of them.
If the allegations are substantiated, they could deeply bruise Seattle’s novel program, approved by voters in 2015 to give grass-roots candidates a better chance against well-funded campaigns. At the same time, an investigation might show the program’s integrity.
“That never, ever took place”
The contributions at issue were crucial to Secrest’s efforts to qualify for potentially more than $100,000 in democracy vouchers. She did not qualify, in part, because some signatures submitted by the campaign were not from Seattle residents and some were not from registered voters, according to elections records.
The voucher program’s rules for qualifying require that a candidate 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 reported 56 signatures collected June 23 that might put her over the threshold. 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, the former campaign manager, alleges Secrest used $560 of her own money to account for the 56 contributions, substituting her own funds for those her campaign said came from Seattle voters. That would be illegal.
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 said. “That never, ever took place … To say we did something dishonest, that’s offensive.”
She also said, “It’s a shame a white man would lead these attacks.”
Burke said he told his story to Wayne Barnett, executive director of the city elections commission. He said a Seattle police detective with the department’s Major Crimes Task Force visited him Wednesday to follow up.
Barnett said Wednesday he could not comment on any investigation.
Burke acknowledges he’s criticized Secrest on social media for not paying him what he said he’s owed for his campaign work. He has posted Facebook messages detailing amounts he’s said he’s owed and said he would take the matter to small-claims court if necessary.
Campaign records show Burke was paid $1,315 as campaign manager and is owed $1,675.
He said he was not fired, but quit when Secrest paid for a campaign flyer before giving him what he was owed.
Secrest said Burke didn’t perform as expected.
Burke said he knew Secrest couldn’t substitute her own money for supposed voter contributions. But he didn’t go to the elections commission for several more weeks.
“I was honestly trying to figure out the best exit” from the campaign, he said in an interview. “The first time I received a check I planned to quit the next day. If I stopped everything, then I’d have nothing.”
Voter hopes program succeeds
The five purported contributors contacted by The Seattle Times said they were approached at the June 23 Trans Pride parade by Secrest or a white man who was working for the campaign. They said they did not recall being asked for contributions, just signatures.
“There was no talk of money,” said Carolyn MacGregor, referring to when Secrest asked her to sign a petition to qualify for democracy vouchers. “I wouldn’t have signed the petition if there was.”
Laura Gardener, who attended the parade with MacGregor, said she signed Secrest’s petition because it “seemed like a fair thing to make vouchers available for everyone.”
Nanette Milligin, the fifth of the June 23 petition-signers reached by The Times said she was confident she did not make a contribution.
Estroff said she still supports vouchers. “I think it’s important the democracy-voucher program works and works to fidelity,” she said. “I want this program to be successful.”