OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit today against the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, alleging campaign finance violations based on a referral from the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).
The lawsuit, filed today in Thurston County Superior Court, asserts that the Freedom Foundation paid its staff to engage in opposition to an Olympia ballot proposition, but failed to report these independent expenditures to the PDC, as required by law.
“Freedom Foundation is a repeat offender of our campaign finance laws,” Ferguson said. “Voters have a right to know who is influencing their elections. The Freedom Foundation needs to start following the law.”
Initiative 1 was a 2016 ballot proposition in the City of Olympia that proposed a progressive income tax of 1.5 percent on households with incomes of $200,000 or greater, using the proceeds to fund college tuition for Olympia residents.
Beginning in May 2016, Freedom Foundation mobilized in opposition to Initiative 1, paying staff to disseminate opposition messaging in podcasts, an opinion piece in the local newspaper, on their website, and at least one email to a Freedom Foundation mailing list. Freedom Foundation also paid staff to support litigation to prevent a public vote on Initiative 1.
Freedom Foundation did not report these in-kind contributions to the PDC, denying the public access to information regarding the source of funding for the opposition campaign. The lawsuit asserts these activities should have been reported to the PDC as independent expenditures,
Other campaign finance violations by the Freedom Foundation
These alleged violations are consistent with a pattern of concealment from the Freedom Foundation.
The conduct in today’s case is similar to a 2016 campaign finance case against the Freedom Foundation, where the organization paid staff to engage in opposition to statewide Initiative 1501. These activities included preparing an opposition statement for the Washington State Voter’s Guide, a video opposition statement for the Washington State Video Voter’s Guide, creating and paying for an opposition website, and participating in an editorial board meeting opposing the initiative. The Freedom Foundation failed to timely report these independent expenditures, and paid a judgment of $8,660.
A 2015 campaign finance case based on similar conduct went up to the State Supreme Court. In that case, the Freedom Foundation failed to properly and timely file independent expenditure reports disclosing the value of the legal services it provided to support ballot propositions in the cities of Sequim, Chelan and Shelton, as required under the state’s campaign finance laws.
Freedom Foundation staff created sample ordinances and ballot propositions to change local laws related to collective bargaining between municipalities and their employee bargaining representatives, then served as counsel for community activists attempting to get the propositions on the ballot.
The Freedom Foundation sought to have the case dismissed, but the state Court of Appeals, Division 2, unanimously ruled the case could proceed.
“The Foundation’s interpretation of [the relevant statute] would lead to an absurd result,” the court wrote.
In January of this year, the Washington State Supreme Court upheld the appeals court decision, ruling that the Freedom Foundation violated the law and the Attorney General’s lawsuit could proceed.
In its opinion, the state Supreme Court wrote: “Under the circumstances of this case, EFF’s pro bono legal services were reportable to the PDC. … Those statutes are not unconstitutionally vague, nor does their application here violate EFF’s First Amendment rights.”
In July 2019, the Freedom Foundation did file the required reports with the PDC, years late. The case is ongoing in Thurston County Superior Court in order to enter a judgment against the Freedom Foundation based on the Supreme Court's ruling and determine appropriate penalties.
Assistant Attorney General Todd Sipe is handling the case filed today in Thurston County Superior Court.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.email@example.com