Sound Transit apparently violated state elections law when it released nearly 173,000 email addresses of ORCA transit cardholders to the campaign promoting the $54 billion ballot measure to expand light rail, a state elections probe found. Sound Transit says the release was an error.
Sound Transit violated state elections law when it released nearly 173,000 protected email addresses of ORCA transit cardholders to the campaign promoting the $54 billion ballot measure to expand light rail, a staff investigation by the state’s campaign-finance watchdog has found.
In its report issued Friday, Washington Public Disclosure Commission staff investigator William Lemp determined Sound Transit’s release of the cardholders’ email addresses to the Mass Transit Now campaign represented an “apparent violation” of the state law that prohibits public agencies from using public resources to assist a political campaign.
“They can give campaigns public records; they just have to follow their normal and regular process in doing so,” PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson said Monday. “What our staff thinks is that it wasn’t normal or regular to give out ORCA email addresses.”
PDC staff will present the findings to commissioners Thursday. They will formally decide whether to ask Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson to take appropriate action to deal with the regional transit agency’s apparent violation, as the investigation recommended.
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Ferguson’s office — which already has received a copy of the “citizen action” complaint that prompted the PDC’s inquiry — has until Oct. 6 to file civil charges and seek penalties against Sound Transit.
Should the office decline to do so, Conner Edwards, who filed the complaint, can file his own civil case against Sound Transit. Edwards, a Tacoma political consultant, said Monday he plans to pursue a case if Ferguson’s office punts.
Mass Transit Now obtained the ORCA cardholders’ email addresses through two public-records requests submitted to the transit agency earlier this year.
State law exempts disclosure of personally identifying information for public transit pass holders, and a Sound Transit privacy statement explicitly informs ORCA cardholders their personal information will remain private.
Still, Sound Transit released the information in response to disclosure requests. Mass Transit Now later sent a campaign promotion for the ST3 ballot measure to the email addresses obtained from the agency.
After The Seattle Times raised questions, Sound Transit officials acknowledged the protected email addresses were improperly released. Geoff Patrick, the agency’s spokesman, said the email information of ORCA cardholders as of 2011 were mistakenly co-mingled and released with other citizen contact information kept in the agency’s “GovDelivery” system that was required to be disclosed under state law.
After the newspaper’s inquiries, Sound Transit sent an email apology to affected ORCA cardholders, and an agency lawyer alerted the Mass Transit Now campaign, asking it to delete the email addresses from its files. A campaign spokesman later said Mass Transit Now did so.
As part of its investigation, PDC staff reviewed various records and interviewed Mass Transit Now campaign manager Abigail Doerr, Sound Transit public-records officer Q’Deene Nagasawa and the agency’s senior legal counsel, Amy Jo Pearsall.
Doerr didn’t volunteer her affiliation with the political campaign in the initial March 28 request for the agency’s email lists, records show. An email exchange later that day also shows that after Doerr submitted the request, a Sound Transit staff member forwarded the request in an email that alerted several agency higher-ups about it.
“Just wanted to let you know about this PDR (public disclosure request),” the email said. “The requestor is asking for the email addresses for all our subscribers in GovDelivery.”
“Do we know who?” replied Craig Davison, Sound Transit’s executive director of communications.
“She is with Transportation Choices Coalition,” Patrick responded of Doerr.
Doerr and other members of the nonprofit TCC are regularly involved in transit political campaigns.
Two weeks later, Sound Transit’s Nagasawa provided Doerr with the agency’s email lists in a password-protected file and closed out the records request. There’s no indication that Nagasawa, a paralegal, withheld any records from Doerr, nor did she seek legal advice before fulfilling the request, the PDC staff report found.
Patrick said Monday that Sound Transit’s public-records staff members didn’t know the GovDelivery system contained protected ORCA email addresses and were simply trying to respond as legally required to the records request.
“We handled this request as we would handle any other and without regard to who was requesting it,” he said.
Asked why his boss, Davison, had inquired about who had made the request, Patrick responded: “It’s unusual for someone to request everybody in our email database. I think it’s a logical thing to wonder who did.”
Sound Transit officials plan to attend the PDC commissioners meeting Thursday, Patrick said.
The PDC’s staff report recommended no action be taken on a separate allegation raised in Edwards’ complaint: that Sound Transit also violated the state’s Public Records Act by releasing transit-cardholder information that’s exempt from public disclosure. The PDC report said the agency doesn’t have authority over Public Records Act issues and noted that individuals who believe they were aggrieved “may take appropriate action.”
PDC staff also separately have reviewed another complaint alleging Sound Transit violated state elections law by engaging in “long-running and increasingly egregious misappropriations” of public resources, including the agency’s hiring a public-relations firm to create an online survey this year that in part sought to gauge why people would vote for the ballot measure.
After The Times questioned whether parts of the survey crossed legal lines by posing questions to determine what messages might resonate with voters to win ST3 approval, the PDC contacted Sound Transit, which later removed two objectionable questions from the survey.
PDC staff recently informed Will Knedlik, the citizen who brought the complaint, they won’t take further action on the matter because they found no additional evidence that Sound Transit or the PR firm involved with the survey were promoting approval of the ballot measure, as Knedlik’s complaint claimed, Anderson said.