Organizers behind the What’s Upstream campaign won a victory when the Washington Public Disclosure Commission recently decided they did not violate state lobbying laws.
However, this is just one piece in a much bigger, disconcerting story that warrants a long, hard look by the state attorney general’s office.
The three members of the state’s watchdog panel agreed with a PDC staff recommendation that those involved in the What’s Upstream promotion did not need to register as a political committee or a grass-roots lobbying organization.
It appears PDC officials focused on narrow definitions of the law rather than the spirit behind it. According to the Capital Press, even the commission’s chairwoman, Anne Levinson, said legislators may want to “fine-tune” state disclosure rules.
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That would be a good idea.
Last spring, billboards sprung up in Olympia and Bellingham with pictures of cows standing in a stream with the slogan, “Unregulated agriculture is putting our waterways at risk,” and the words, “Learn more at whatsupstream.com.”
The campaign indicated farmers are violating water quality laws and polluting the state’s streams and rivers. A “take action” link on the What’s Upstream website encouraged people to write their legislators.
But, as it turns out, the cows on the billboards were from a stock Internet photo and were not from a Washington dairy farm.
It also was discovered the campaign reportedly was paid for by an Environmental Protection Agency grant that was funneled to the Swinomish tribe — which then used the money to hire a Seattle marketing company.
When the money trail came to light, farm groups and federal lawmakers were outraged. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and other House members wrote a harsh letter to the EPA, scolding the federal agency for funding a propaganda campaign against Washington state farmers.
This alleged violation of federal antilobbying laws is still under investigation by the EPA’s inspector general.
In the meantime, Save Family Farming, a group of farmers and leaders in the agriculture industry, filed a complaint with the PDC against the Swinomish tribe, the EPA and Strategies 360 — a Seattle lobbying firm.
Attorneys for the farming group claim the campaign was an effort to influence legislators, and that organizers violated state law when they failed to disclose the federal money spent on the project.
However, because the letter-writing drive encouraged by the website was not aimed at specific legislation, PDC staff members did not consider it grassroots lobbying.
PDC Executive Director Evelyn Fielding Lopez told the Capital Press that there “has to be more than a general call to contact legislators” and that the Legislature may want to tighten that interpretation of the law.
The PDC also found that the cost of establishing the link to the letter-writing campaign did not exceed $1,400 over three weeks — the amount that requires public disclosure.
Attorneys for Save Family Farming said the campaign spent about $650,000 overall before EPA stopped the funds.
But, according to PDC opinion, the “take action” link is the only piece of the campaign that possibly could be considered direct lobbying — not the billboards, website and bus signs.
That reasoning is hard to understand.
If the intent behind a propaganda drive is to influence public opinion, those behind that effort should be required to follow state public disclosure rules like any other political campaign — even if it isn’t specific to a particular bill or ballot measure.
Lawmakers and state officials should find a way to make that happen.