Largest contributor to 2018 PUD race fined $10,000

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OLYMPIA — A fundraising organizaton that made the largest donations to the 2018 Grant County Public Utility District elections has been assessed a $10,000 fine for failing to register as a political committee, failing to disclose donors and failing to disclose financial information.

The state Public Disclosure Commission assessed the fine against Ag Water and Power Users of Grant County seven months after the Columbia Basin Herald found evidence of violations and filed a complaint in October 2018. Don Long, a former power manager with the PUD, filed additional complaints a day later. Both were cited in the commission's decision.

Three-quarters of the fine, or $7,500, will be suspended for four years on the condition that the group does not violate disclosure laws again and that it pays $2,500 of the fine to the state treasurer within 30 days.

Ag Water and Power Users of Grant County contributed around $56,000 in total to candidates for last year's PUD elections, helping to make it the most expensive PUD race in the entire state. The group made $27,902 contributions each to support Judy Wilson and Nelson Cox, who both won their respective races.

PDC Communications and Outreach Director Kim Bradford said Wednesday that a “minority” of complaints lead to fines.

Public disclosure laws regarding non-profit organizations such as Ag Water and Power Users of Grant County are more complicated than with most groups, with myriad exemptions that allow groups to withhold donor information by avoiding classification as a political committee. If a non-profit organization has a broad purpose it only partially fulfills by electioneering, than it can currently skirt disclosure requirements, according to interpretations of case law by the state Public Disclosure Commission.

However, the group lost its ability to legally avoid disclosure when it began soliciting donations for explicitly political purposes, as it did in a flyer produced by the Ag Power Users of Grant County in 2017 and posted to social media again in April. In the social media post, the group indicated that it works to “make sure all of our community members (sic) interests are considered in PUD rate planning,” and suggests that this is best accomplished through electoral politics.

“Thus, the best opportunity for us to assure our mutual interests are not ignored, is to elect candidates that will advocate for all of us for PUD Commissioner,” the post reads.

According to PDC guidelines, this qualified as a “special solicitation” that required the group to disclose its donors publicly, which it failed to do.

Travis Meacham, the group's president, wrote in a response to the initial complaint that prior conversations with the PDC had led the group to believe it was not in violation of the law.

“I was contacted by the PCD (sic) in about July to discuss the status of our organization,” Meacham wrote. “It was determined at that time that there was not a need for us to take any further action. Our group operated under that knowledge and do (sic) not believe that we needed to take any further steps.”

Emry Dinman can be reached via email at edinman@columbiabasinherald.com.

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