Hide the Money
Wednesday, October 30, 2019
HIDE THE MONEY: As we predicted early on in this election (because it happens every election) the corporate cash dump arrived late and in probable violation of the state’s campaign finance laws, and was put to immediate mischief in a negative (and unbearably stupid) smear campaign against Satpal Sidhu. The Whatcom County Council member is running for the position of County Executive against oil and coal industry lobbyist Tony Larson.
As detailed in a complaint to the state’s campaign finance watchdog, the Public Disclosure Commission, the cash dump came in a $70,000 contribution to a newly formed political action committee, the Coalition for a Better Northwest Washington, from the parent company of the Phillips 66 refinery. Another arrived from Marathon Petroleum Company. Both lobbying groups are headquartered out of state.
Depositing contributions in excess of $138,000 from a handful of deep-pocket donors, the Coalition has spent less than $5,000 on behalf of Larson’s campaign, according to the latest PDC filings. They’ve spent more than $66,000 in independent expenditures against Sidhu. This imbalance alone indicates what sort of campaign they’re running—it is highly negative, and it is in pursuit of no coherent policy position.
The cash has been spent primarily on television advertising, digital social media buys and highly misleading telephone push-polls. The catalyst of the noise is the county’s ongoing process for land code amendments for the Cherry Point industrial zone; however, it is very telling that these cash spends say nothing at all about those amendments. Instead, they slyly pull out of context remarks made on Council by Sidhu—by training a petroleum product engineer—about the comparative value of petroleum.
“This is the best they could find against me?” Sidhu laughed. “I can raise the prices of oil? Where does Satpal draw that authority as County Executive? It is ludicrous.
“I am stunned to have to respond to the level of stupidity being presented by these major companies.”
It is hard not to laugh at the silliness of these attacks—many thousands of dollars terribly spent—but the target audience is not a sophisticated voter. More than anything, the campaign serves as acid commentary by the oil industry of their estimation of the intelligence of Whatcom County residents.
It additionally illustrates that, far from suffering, the petroleum industry has money to cavalierly piss away in the shabbiest ways.
“The most surprising thing,” Sidhu said, “is there is no ad about Cherry Point. There’s no argument with Cherry Point because they could not find any argument.”
There is very little a local government can do in response to the major projects proposed by global energy giants. County Council has stepped up to enact some small portion of that very little—and it is all legal and appropriate, and mostly involves increasing public process and transparency in the approval of these projects.
The late cash dump served to generate a counter-response in grassroots activism.
Sidhu has aggressively closed the gap on Larson’s early lead in fundraising—much of it in the last few weeks and accelerating in the last few days as voters have responded to the smear campaign. Sidhu has raised nearly $170,000 in hundreds of small campaign contributions in amounts under $1,000—a strong indicator of grassroots support. This compares against Larson, who has received a comparable total, but in half the number of individual donations—three-quarters of which are in large amounts in excess of $1,000.
The comparative weights of these contributions serve as strong forecasters of election outcomes.
But late corporate contributions are part of a corrupt pattern of abuse in Whatcom County elections, and they manifestly defeat the public interest and capacity to “follow the money” in political campaigns.
This time it’s Big Oil. In 2013, it was Big Coal, as the PAC Whatcom First committed a substantially similar violation, accepting tens of thousands of dollars after the disclosure deadline. Whatcom First was fined a small amount by the PDC for the violation.
In that hearing they were represented by attorney Dan Brady, who appears to specialize in campaign finance mischief. Brady Law has been held on retainer for the new Coalition for a Better Northwest Washington—and undoubtedly a portion of the cash dump will help pay their legal defense and whatever paltry fine is assigned by the PDC.
That’s how this game is played—with the money not only breaking the law but afterward serving to scoff at the law.
In a similar case in 2015, a different PAC, Clear Ballot Choices, was working to influence Whatcom County elections by severing Bellingham’s ability to participate in countywide elections. The PAC—managed in large part by the same cast of serial lawbreakers—was similarly found to have improperly reported campaign expenditures. In that case, the actor who was identified as at fault was Tony Larson. Larson, through his Whatcom Business Alliance, is essentially a highly compensated lobbyist for the oil and coal industry, now seeking to represent citizens as the head of county administration. Representing Pacific International Terminals in that action was—again—Dan Brady, who provided legal counsel to Clear Ballot Choices.
Coming full circle and greasing the palm that enriches him, Brady has contributed substantially to Larson’s campaign (which he stands to earn back representing these scofflaws at some future PDC enforcement hearing).
It’s the revolving door of a borderline enterprise whose primary function is to curtail democracy, mislead voters and conceal—through a three-card monte shuffling of PACs and expenditures—who is buying our local elections. All who engineer it should be ashamed.