Republican state senators are dubious that Sound Transit’s improper release of 173,000 email addresses last year was an accident. The state’s campaign-finance watchdog said last year the agency didn’t violate the law, but the Senate probed the matter further on Thursday.
A Republican-led state Senate committee grilled Sound Transit staff members Thursday over the agency’s improper release of about 173,000 email addresses in the run-up to last year’s Sound Transit 3 (ST3) ballot measure.
Sound Transit has said it mistakenly released the email addresses — belonging to holders of ORCA transit cards — after a request from the campaign in favor of the ST3 ballot measure.
While no one disputes that the release was improper, the Washington Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), the state’s campaign-finance watchdog, concluded last year that the release was accidental and the agency did not violate the law.
That conclusion, however, came a week after a PDC staff report found that the agency had violated the law when it released the email addresses.
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Mass Transit Now — the group that ran the $7.3 million campaign in favor of ST3 — filed public-records requests for email addresses in Sound Transit’s database. Email addresses for public-transit pass holders are exempt from public disclosure, but other email addresses, such as for people who signed up for updates from the agency, are not.
But all the email addresses were co-mingled in the same database, which was inadvertently released to the campaign group, Sound Transit officials said.
When the mistake was discovered, after a report in The Seattle Times, Sound Transit contacted Mass Transit Now and asked them to delete the improperly disclosed email addresses, officials said.
But Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, a longtime Sound Transit foe, was dubious that it was all an accident, asking Sound Transit officials when they became aware that the group running the ST3 campaign was the one asking for the email addresses.
The Senate Law and Justice Committee, at O’Ban’s request, is investigating Sound Transit’s actions in the run-up to last year’s election. Puget Sound region voters approved the $54 billion package that will bring massive expansions of light rail, bus service and commuter rail to the region over the next 25 years.
The Legislature doesn’t have the power to criminally charge anyone as a result of the investigation, but it could potentially hand its findings to the state attorney general or another prosecutor for further investigation, or use its conclusions to influence future legislation. Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office reviewed the issue of the improperly released emails last year and concluded that Sound Transit did not violate the law.
A hearing last week looked at the agency’s statements to the Legislature about the size of the taxing package it would ask for, as well as how it calculates car-tab taxes, topics that were both rehashed at Thursday’s hearing.
O’Ban also questioned the relationship between Mass Transit Now, Sound Transit and Transportation Choices Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for mass transit.
Abigail Doerr, the campaign manager of Mass Transit Now, filed the public-records requests and is also advocacy director of Transportation Choices Coalition. Sound Transit, like many transit agencies across the state, pays membership dues to Transportation Choices Coalition.
But Sound Transit officials repeatedly confessed ignorance of both Doerr and her affiliations.
Craig Davison, the agency’s communications director, initially said he didn’t recall if he knew what Mass Transit Now was, at the time of the public-records requests in 2016. Informed that he’d donated money to Mass Transit Now, Davison said that he must have been familiar with its mission.
“You knew that Transportation Choices Coalition was a strong supporter of ST3?” O’Ban asked.
“I may have known that,” Davison said.