A farming advocacy group has helped expose a crack in the state’s campaign financing system, and now that we’ve seen it we realize the potential for abuse is rife.
This concern demands attention.
Save Family Farming, a group of farmers and leaders in the agriculture industry, filed a complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission claiming the Swinomish tribe violated state law when it failed to disclose the federal money spent on its “What’s Upstream” campaign.
Representatives for the tribe have challenged the complaint for several reasons, but the kicker is they say the PDC lacks jurisdiction over Native American tribes and their officials.
They claim the state’s Fair Campaign Practices Act does not apply to the sovereign nation, and that tribal officials are immune from “state enforcement actions.”
Leaping ahead, this means tribes conceivably could be the go-between for private industry and special interest groups who want to spend money on political campaigns and avoid public disclosure.
The thought is alarming.
The public deserves to know who is behind any effort to affect public policy and why. This gap in the system completely tears apart the safeguards created by our campaign financing laws.
The firm representing Save Family Farming goes so far as to suggest that the tribes could benefit financially by accepting a cut of any political donation made through them.
While we have not heard of anything so outrageous happening yet, knowing that the avenue for misuse exists is still unsettling.
PDC Executive Director Evelyn Fielding Lopez has said it is unclear whether the PDC can enforce a penalty against a tribe, according to a report by the Capital Press.
In the story, she said, “It’s a very interesting question” and it’s one that a court has not been asked to resolve.
If it has to go that far, we think it should.
Tribal sovereignty in the United States is the inherent authority of indigenous tribes to govern themselves. And we respect that — but only to the point where it does not interfere with public policy and our state process.
The Swinomish tribe has said the “What’s Upstream” project was intended to educate the public — not influence legislation.
That line appears blurry at the moment, however, and it needs to be better defined.
Last spring, the “What’s Upstream” campaign caused outrage when billboards depicting cattle standing in a stream popped up in Olympia and Bellingham, indicating that farmers are polluting state waterways.
The slogan, “Unregulated agriculture is putting our waterways at risk” and the words, “Learn more at whatsupstream.com” accompanied the stock photo off the Internet — the cows were not even from a Washington dairy.
Grant money from the Environmental Protection Agency was used to spread the message, which is a violation of lobbying laws.
The money reportedly was given initially to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, a consortium of 20 tribes. The consortium then sub-awarded the money to the Swinomish tribe for its “What’s Upstream” campaign.
The EPA Office of Inspector General is conducting an investigation into the issue, and Save Family Farming has asked the PDC to keep its complaint active until that report is complete.
That seems wise. This issue is huge for the PDC, and we hope officials will consider what steps they can take to close this gap that has been uncovered in our campaign finance system.
If the tribes want to affect state policy in any way, they need to play by state rules.