Bill targets secret campaign spending

State Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, has unveiled legislation to tighten Washington's well-regarded campaign finance disclosure rules to combat electioneering shell games.

It's a response to outrage over furtive funding that played a role in two Puget Sound-area legislative races this year.

In fact, outgoing Sen. Jean Berkey, D-Everett, may trigger a ruckus when the Legislature convenes Jan. 10: She's called on her colleagues to refuse to swear in a Democratic challenger (Nick Harper) she claims benefited from tainted campaign money to beat her in the August primary.

It's no idle accusation. Following a lengthy Public Disclosure Commission investigation, Attorney General Rob McKenna has sued Moxie Media, a Democratic firm that gathered contributions from labor unions and state employee groups.

About $9,000 of that helped pay for two mailers and automated phone calls to attack Berkey, targeted by liberal Democrats upset with her views.

Problem was, the cash was folded into two new political action committees, Cut Taxes PAC and Conservative PAC, without the union pledges' being disclosed as required by state law. Moxie was further found to have created dozens of PACs to skirt disclosure rules.

In another nasty race, Sen. Eric Oemig, D-Kirkland, was the object of an anonymous mail piece paid for, without the proper paperwork, by a local arm of the conservative Americans for Prosperity. Oemig was defeated by GOP candidate Andy Hill.

Enter Pridemore, new chairman of the revamped Senate Government Operations, Tribal Affairs & Elections Committee.

His pre-filed Senate Bill 5021, which he's discussed with Minority Leader Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, would shut down disclosure loopholes now made evident. It would:

-- Require that a PAC's name contain the name of the person or group creating it.

-- Require PACs created to support or oppose a candidate to name that individual, his or her party affiliation, office sought and year of election.

-- Prohibit two PACs from using the same name.

-- Establish the presumption -- with guidelines for rebuttal -- that any group or person creating more than two PACs is doing so to conceal donors' identity.

-- Ban PAC-to-PAC contributions, outside of established political parties and caucus political committees.

Pridemore's bill also would lower the reporting threshold for "electioneering communication" to the fair market value of $1,000, from the current $5,000, and lower the mandatory electronic filing threshold for candidates and political committees from $10,000 to $5,000.

The bill would raise limits on single and aggregate penalties, up to a $10,000 fine for each violation. It also would set criminal penalties for intentional violations, ranging from misdemeanor to class C felony charges.

Pridemore plans to push the bill as soon as legislators gather.

He said he's confident he'll find broad support, as aggrieved parties cross political lines.

"It's a huge issue, (an) immediate issue. I would like to show real quickly we've got a process, going forward, to address the problem," he said.

The recent episodes reveal "what could be done by unscrupulous people trying to avoid disclosure," Pridemore said. "And it will be done, now that they see it's possible" to duck disclosure until well past an election, he said.