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PDC staff sees violations by group opposing 2009 gay-rights referendum

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Oct. 23, 2012 at 8:46 am |
October 23, 2012 1:03 pm

Staff at the Public Disclosure Commission have outlined what they say are “multiple apparent violations” of campaign-finance disclosure laws by a group called Family PAC that fought a 2009 gay-rights law, and its treasurer Joseph Backholm.

Backholm is also campaigning for voters to reject the 2012 gay-marriage law, which is not at issue in this case.

The group’s lawyers contend the PDC can’t legally require disclosures of its legal fees. The commission will consider at its meeting Thursday whether to accept investigators’ conclusions and forward the case to Attorney General Rob McKenna for legal action.

While opposing the “everything-but-marriage” Referendum 71 in 2009, Family PAC sued the state to challenge several campaign-finance laws. The group succeeded in getting one key law struck down. But PDC investigators say it failed to report the legal services it incurred as the case has wound its way through the courts.

PDC estimates unreported expenses of at least $148,987 and perhaps as much as $940,408, using descriptions provided by then-Family PAC attorney James Bopp as part of a request for the state to pay the legal fees. The PDC said a federal district court has ordered the state to pay the fees, a decision that is being appealed.

PDC Executive Director Andrea McNamara Doyle said in a complaint that

contributions to a political committee to pay for legal services, in-kind contributions of legal services performed for less than full consideration, debts and obligations related to legal services, and monetary expenditures to pay for legal services are all reportable …

Backholm didn’t return a phone message, but Family PAC attorney Noel Johnson replied in a letter that the PDC can’t legally require disclosure of legal services in connection with a federal civil rights lawsuit:

Based on the timing of the PDC’s Complaint, it is clear that this investigation is retaliation against Family PAC for prevailing in a civil rights lawsuit and requesting the reasonable attorney’s fees to which Section 1988 entitles it. The United States Supreme Court has consistently held that such retaliatory action is a violation of Family PAC’s constitutional rights.

The court challenge succeeded in persuading an appeals court to strike down a law restricting large donations of more than $5,000 to ballot measures in the 21 days before an election.

The court case is the reason big donations are still pouring in for supporters and opponents of the Referendum 74 campaign to uphold the Legislature’s recognition of same-sex marriage. Newly reported contributions include $200,000 from the National Organization for Marriage, which has now donated $1.2 million to defeat R-74, and of $15,000 from the Human Rights Campaign, which has now donated $991,000 to approve R-74.

Both Backholm and the group he directs, the Family Policy Institute of Washington, are involved in the opposition to this year’s same-sex marriage Referendum 74. The FPIW shares an address and leadership structure with Family PAC, according to the PDC.

UPDATED 1 p.m. to change the examples of contributions that have come in after the old 21-day deadline. Bill and Melinda Gates’ latest donations of $500,000 were reported after the now-defunct deadline but came in just before it.

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