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Originally published Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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McKenna sues state GOP over using "soft money" to promote Rossi

Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, Friday filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court against the Washington State Republican Party for illegally spending $212,967 to advocate for Dino Rossi, the GOP candidate for governor.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, filed a lawsuit Friday against the Washington State Republican Party for illegally spending $212,967 to advocate for Dino Rossi, the GOP candidate for governor.

Following up on the Public Disclosure Commission's findings, McKenna's lawsuit in King County Superior Court says the state party used unlimited "soft money" contributions for three mailings that criticized Gov. Christine Gregoire and urged people to "Vote for Dino Rossi."

Soft money can only be used for administrative and party-building activities. Only "hard money" contributions, which are limited by state law, can be used to expressly promote candidates.

The Republican Governors Association (RGA) is the biggest contributor ($420,000) to the state party's soft-money account. Bob Perry, a Texas homebuilder who was the largest financier of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that attacked John Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign, is the biggest contributor ($400,000) to the RGA, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

John Ladenburg, McKenna's Democratic opponent in this year's race for attorney general, has argued McKenna has a conflict of interest and should hand over the case against the state party to an independent counsel.

McKenna has declined, saying his office has good lawyers who will prosecute the case objectively. He notes that his Democratic predecessor, Gregoire, won lawsuits and hefty settlements against the Democratic Party ($250,000) and the state teachers union ($430,000), which had supported her campaign for attorney general.

McKenna made the decision to sue but will not be involved further in the case, said his spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie. Instead, McKenna's chief deputy, Brian Moran, will be responsible for the case.

"In an abundance of caution" McKenna has "screened" himself from the case because of his long relationship with Luke Esser, head of the state Republican Party, Guthrie said. Esser has worked for McKenna, and the two have known each other since college, she said.

Moran will not seek an injunction to stop the GOP from repeating its violations, Guthrie added. The party said in a letter to the attorney general it would refrain from improperly using soft money again in this election.

"Absent an imminent threat that the behavior will continue, we don't have enough evidence to file for an injunction," Guthrie said. "But should we have evidence, we stand ready to file for an injunction."

The state GOP had argued the mailings were communications to party members and therefore allowed. Party lawyer John J. White Jr. said he would challenge the state's action in U.S. District Court.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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