Benton County accused of using public money to campaign for tax

Tyler Richardson, Tri-City HeraldJune 26, 2014 

A member of the committee opposing a proposed public safety sales tax for Benton County has filed a complaint accusing county officials of using public resources to campaign for the tax.

Leon Howard of West Richland filed a 192-page complaint Thursday with the state Public Disclosure Commission and sent copies to news media.

It claims county officials have used their positions to solicit contributions, raised campaign money before the measure was placed on the ballot and used public resources to organize the campaign.

The complaint names Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg, county Prosecutor Andy Miller, Richland Police Chief Chris Skinner, county Commissioner Jerome Delvin and others.

Proponents of the tax dismissed Howard's claims, calling the complaint "dirty politics."

The complaint is "frivolous and false," inaccurate and a publicity stunt, said Al Wehner, campaign manager and recently retired Richland police captain.

Wehner and others named in the complaint adamantly denied any wrongdoing and said they welcome a state inquiry. They said all campaign activities have followed state and PDC regulations.

"The fact that a copy was sent out to all media in the Tri-Cities suggests clearly a cheap political strategy to divert attention away from the facts of the ballot measure," Wehner said.

The tax, which will appear on the Aug. 5 ballot as Proposition 14-5, is designed to support law enforcement agencies, courts and public safety programs in Benton County.

Officials said it could put 32 police officers on the streets, help start a mental health court, keep the Metro Drug Task Force operating, support the drug court and help to hire two deputy prosecutors and a Superior Court judge.

If successful, the three-tenths of 1 percent measure would add three cents to a $10 purchase. Officials estimate it would cost the average household in Benton County $87 a year. The measure would last for 10 years.

Opponents like Howard -- who is a former tea party blogger -- and the Benton County Citizens For Efficient Criminal Justice & Law Enforcement say the tax is too expensive.

Howard told the Herald on Thursday that he stands by his complaint. He said county officials clearly violated state campaign laws and that his complaint was not drafted to "muddy up the waters."

In the complaint, Howard wrote that officials used their work email accounts to create a campaign strategy, drove city-issued cars to events supporting the campaign and have publicly stated support for the tax while on duty.

Howard claims the officials violated state campaign laws by using public resources and showing support while they were in uniform. He also complained that people opposed to the tax were not allowed to talk at public meetings.

"I filed the complaint because it's a violation of (state law). From what we discovered, they are definitely in violation of that," he said.

Wehner said Howard's claim that law enforcement officials showing support for the measure violates campaign laws is "ludicrous." He said it's the chiefs' and elected officials' responsibility to comment on issues that affect the public.

Wehner also denied any efforts to fund the pro-tax campaign before it was officially put on the ballot.

"I hope the voters continue to evaluate the important ballot measure on its merits and facts," Wehner said. "It personally angers me that the integrity of Chief Hohenberg and other county and city representatives is being questioned."

The Public Disclosure Commission received the complaint Thursday and could begin to review it next week, said Lori Anderson, spokeswoman for the commission. The citizens committee will investigate to see if the complaint has any validity.

The initial investigation could take about a month, she said. The commission would talk with those who are named in the complaint, as well as Howard.

"We use the preliminary investigation to determine whether the allegations have merits," Anderson said. "If they do, we will go forward and have a full-blown investigation, which could end in sanctions."

If the commission finds officials violated campaign laws, civil charges could be filed and fines of up to $10,000 could be issued, she said.

-- Tyler Richardson: 509-582-1556; Twitter; @Ty_richardson

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