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Originally published October 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 7, 2008 at 9:06 AM

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Ex-judges sue Rossi, builders, challenge fundraising

In the final days of a heated election, Republican gubernatorial challenger Dino Rossi could be forced to testify under oath about allegations that he illegally coordinated campaign fundraising with a major supporter, the conservative Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW).

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — In the final days of a heated election, Republican gubernatorial challenger Dino Rossi could be forced to testify under oath about allegations that he illegally coordinated campaign fundraising with a major supporter, the conservative Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW).

The legal showdown was prompted Monday by two former state Supreme Court justices, Faith Ireland and Robert Utter, who support Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire in her re-election campaign against Rossi.

The former judges sued the building-industry group in King County Superior Court, claiming that the BIAW worked too closely with Rossi in developing a multimillion-dollar political-spending effort focused on the governor's race. The suit seeks to halt the BIAW's political spending in the last weeks of the campaign.

Rossi, a former state senator, is running neck and neck with Gregoire in one of the nation's most competitive governor's races. Gregoire defeated Rossi for governor in 2004 by just 133 votes, after three ballot counts and a failed Republican court challenge.

The BIAW, which is despised by Democrats and their allies for its pugnacious conservatism, has made electing Rossi its top political priority.

Knoll Lowney, a liberal legal activist handling Monday's lawsuit, said Rossi is among the people being targeted for depositions starting Oct. 15 — the first day that absentee ballots are available in Washington's almost entirely vote-by-mail election. Two counties, King and Pierce, still have polling stations.

Rossi also will be sued if state officials do not pursue the allegations first, the former judges said.

"Rossi and the BIAW have said that they have nothing to hide in this matter. If this is so, then they should welcome the opportunity to tell their story under oath," Lowney said in a statement.

Allegations dismissed

Building Industry Association officials scoffed at the allegations, pointing out that a separate Lowney lawsuit targeting the group recently failed to curtail the BIAW's political spending.

Rossi's campaign said the lawsuit was an attempt by Democratic allies to distract voters from the rough economy and a projected $3.2 billion budget shortfall.

"He did nothing wrong, end of story," Rossi spokeswoman Jill Strait said in a statement.

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In their lawsuit, Ireland and Utter argue that Rossi was involved in the BIAW's efforts to raise money for its 2008 political activism.

That would mean the BIAW's political spending of about $2 million is not an independent campaign, the lawsuit argues, and therefore violates limits on direct political contributions.

They point to phone calls that Rossi made to leaders of the King and Snohomish counties Master Builders Association in early 2007, while that BIAW affiliate group was considering whether to contribute to the BIAW's political fund.

Rossi has said he was merely trying to patch a rift between the two groups, both of which had supported him in the past. Although their political spending was part of the schism, Rossi says he didn't discuss any specifics about money.

Time of candidacy

But even if he had, Rossi has argued that would have been acceptable, since he hadn't become a candidate for governor yet.

Exactly when Rossi became a candidate under state law is a key issue in the case.

He formally declared his candidacy last October, but Ireland and Utter argue that Rossi technically became a candidate earlier.

They point to a state rule that says a person can be considered a candidate when he or she consents to a political committee promoting the candidacy, and they say Rossi did so — that he allegedly knew of the BIAW's intent to support his eventual 2008 run with a political committee.

But while it was no secret to anyone that BIAW generally would support Rossi if he chose to run again, BIAW spokeswoman Erin Shannon said Rossi "had no knowledge of what we would do, or what sort of money we would spend."

The BIAW and the King and Snohomish Master Builders face a separate legal action from Republican state Attorney General Rob McKenna over alleged missteps in campaign-finance reporting. That lawsuit also was initiated by an Ireland and Utter complaint handled by Lowney.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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