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Enforcement Action Sought in Case Stemming From U.S.Chamber of Commerce’s Covert Funneling of $1.5 Million Into Washington Attorney General Race

Oct. 11, 2005

Enforcement Action Sought in Case Stemming From U.S.Chamber of Commerce’s Covert Funneling of $1.5 Million Into Washington Attorney General Race

Chamber Used Front Group to Shield Involvement in Race, Petition Says

SEATTLE – A petition filed today with the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission by Public Citizen, a retired Washington State Supreme Court chief justice and a law professor seeks enforcement action against a U.S. Chamber of Commerce subsidiary for the covert funneling of $1.5 million into the 2004 Washington state attorney general race.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent the money on attack ads and shielded its involvement by using a front group, according to the petition. The petition calls on the Commission – the state agency with authority to investigate and police campaign finance abuse – to find that a Chamber subsidiary called the Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) violated state law by failing to register with the state, concealing contributions and expenditures, and secretly conspiring to air ads in 2004 against attorney general candidate Deborah Senn.

The petition, filed by retired Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Utter, Seattle University law professor Joaquin Avila and Public Citizen, a national consumer advocacy organization with more than 4,300 members in Washington state, details how the Chamber covertly launched ads targeting Senn. The front group that was publicly associated with the ads, the Voters Education Committee (VEC), was created by the Chamber’s ILR. The ads were paid for with money from a joint Chamber/ILR account.

The ad buy was consistent with Chamber activities in 25 other states, a VEC representative said under oath. In fact, a 2004 Wall StreetJournal article quoted Chamber employee Stan Anderson discussing the Chamber’s efforts to target primarily Democrats in attorney general and state Supreme Court justice races throughout the country. Targeted states included Indiana, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Michigan, West Virginia, Ohio and Arkansas.

The petitioners are asking the commission to find that the Chamber-sponsored ILR broke the law and have the attorney general prosecute the ILR in court and order it to pay sanctions. 

“The Chamber’s covert activities in Washington state mirror its orchestration of campaign attack ads in a number of other states,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “The Chamber was the pivotal force in organizing, funding and executing a nationwide, systematic plan to secretly hijack elections of attorneys general and state Supreme Court  justices with funds garnered from some of the biggest corporations in the country – whose names are not disclosed. The Chamber-funded ads attacked the integrity and reputation of consumer-oriented candidates. This perversion of our democracy must be stopped.”

“If the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is able to evade registration requirements and hide from voters the true origin of campaign financing in affected races, it deprives the voters of our state of vital information in crucial races,” said Utter, who served as the state’s chief justice from 1979 to 1981 and was on the court from 1971 to 1995. “To hide from the public the true source of financing of judicial races deprives the public of their ability to judge whether a judge can not only be impartial but also can appear to be impartial, a vital factor in public confidence.”

“An important component of any election is transparency,” said Avila, who is an expert in constitutional law and voting rights. “To make an informed choice, voters need to know whether any special interests are supporting or opposing any candidate’s campaign. Only by having elections that are transparent can voters meaningfully exercise that most fundamental of all rights – the right to vote.”

The ads against Senn, a Democrat who was tough with businesses when she was insurance commissioner, were broadcast throughout the state. Senn has said that the ads contributed to her loss in the 2004 race.

Details of the Chamber’s involvement in the race emerged in the wake of a case launched by the Public Disclosure Commission, which found that the VEC had violated state disclosure rules by failing to register as a political committee and failing to report contributions and expenditures. The commission referred the case to the state attorney general; last month, King County Superior Court Judge Richard Jones agreed that the anti-Senn ads had violated state law.

During the case, VEC agents testified that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was directly involved in the planning, drafting, researching and implementation of the ads, and that the Chamber had paid for the ads.

When choosing which states to target, the Chamber/ILR conducts polls and does research on candidates, which it did in Washington state, testimony showed. The petition explains that the effort was so hidden in Washington that local Chambers of Commerce were unaware of it until after the fact, when they registered their disagreement with the anti-Senn campaign. Although the Chamber/ILR said it educates voters about issues, Chamber representatives could not explain what issue it was advocating in its anti-Senn ads.

“This petition serves to hold the U.S. Chamber/ILR accountable for its violation of the laws in the state of Washington,” said attorney Mike Withey, who represents the petitioners. “The voters and taxpayers of this state deserve to have the Chamber’s subsidiary pay fines and monetary sanctions for these illegal ads because its local front group has no money. The days when the Chamber can stand in the shadows and practice deception and concealment of campaign contributions should be over.”