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Originally published Thursday, May 26, 2011 at 8:48 PM

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Port fined after failing to file lobbying expenses

The Port of Seattle failed to file 4-1/2 years of reports about its lobbying expenses, a state investigation found.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Port of Seattle failed to file 4 ½ years of reports about its lobbying expenses, a state investigation found.

The Port blamed staff turnover and confusion about the requirements. The state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) decided Thursday to fine the Port $7,500 and is considering ways to simplify filing.

Sound Transit also agreed this spring to pay a $15,000 fine after failing to file reports on $682,000 worth of lobbying over the past three years. That agency, too, said new staff members didn't understand the filing requirements, so they didn't file the forms.

An intern at a libertarian watchdog group, Freedom Foundation, discovered the missing reports last year. The Freedom Foundation filed complaints about 69 public agencies whose lobbying reports were missing or incomplete, said Mike Reitz, the foundation's general counsel.

In Washington state, people who lobby the Legislature must register and file reports about whom they represent and which legislators they speak to. Public agencies are also supposed to file forms about their lobbying, recording which legislation they were lobbying for or against and how much money they spent.

Both the Port and Sound Transit have caught up on the reports. The PDC suspended half of each agency's fine as long as they file complete reports for four years.

PDC commissioners who met Thursday to approve the Port's fine expressed discomfort with taking public money for fines.

"If you're a private lobbyist and you goof up, that comes out of your own pocket. But when you're a public agency and you lobby and you have to come here and pay a fine, it's still public money. That's what haunts me," said Jim Clements, the only PDC member to vote Thursday against fining the Port.

Port spokeswoman Charla Skaggs said the Port's manager of state government relations left in 2007. Around the same time, an administrative assistant left. Interim staff who handled lobbying and the new governmental relations manager misunderstood filing requirements. The Port failed to report to the state $270,000 in lobbying expenses.

Skaggs said Port employees thought they needed to file only when the Legislature was in session. In fact, they should have filed four reports a year. "Those things explain how you could have an oversight, but we recognize it was a mistake and we're rectifying it," Skaggs said.

Sound Transit also acknowledged its mistake. "We assure you that the failure to file the L5 forms was caused by an administrative error, not by a purposeful decision not to file the forms," wrote Desmond Brown, the transit agency's lawyer.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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