Washington Supreme Court rules AG campaign finance case against Freedom Foundation can proceed
Court: Law is clear, campaign finance rules apply to local ballot measures
OLYMPIA — The Washington State Supreme Court today ruled in favor of Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s campaign finance case against the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, upholding the unanimous appeals court decision to allow the case to continue.
“Washington law has demanding but clear campaign finance disclosure requirements, and the Supreme Court confirmed that today,” Ferguson said. “I will defend Washingtonians’ right to know who is funding their elections.”
In its opinion, the 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.”
The case relates to a 2015 lawsuit, alleging 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.
In 2014, the Freedom Foundation staff created a set of sample ordinances and ballot propositions to change local laws related to collective bargaining between municipalities and their employee bargaining representatives. These drafts were publicly available via the Freedom Foundation’s website.
Using the draft documents from the website, community activists from Sequim, Chelan and Shelton gathered signatures from citizens in their communities and filed ballot propositions. None of the ballot propositions were locally enacted or placed before the local voters.
In response, Freedom Foundation staff served as counsel for the community activists and filed separate lawsuits against those cities. The lawsuits requested that the courts order the propositions be placed on their corresponding ballots.
Throughout the lawsuits, the Freedom Foundation paid their staff attorney his normal salary, and the community activists did not pay the Freedom Foundation or its staff for legal counsel. Ferguson’s lawsuit argues that providing this legal counsel at no cost to the community activists constitutes an independent expenditure, which should have been reported to the Public Disclosure Commission under state law.
By not reporting its contributions to these efforts, the state argues, the Freedom Foundation inhibited the public’s right to know the source of funds supporting these proposed ballot measures.
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.
The Washington Supreme Court upheld the appeals court and ordered the matter returned to the trial court for further proceedings.
The Attorney General’s Office enforces the state’s campaign finance disclosure law to ensure free, open and fair elections in Washington state. A summary of campaign finance case resolutions is available here.
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.firstname.lastname@example.org