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Originally published February 23, 2013 at 7:53 PM | Page modified February 23, 2013 at 9:43 PM

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Unusual expenses led to investigation of Senate Dems’ campaign official

The Senate Democratic Campaign Committee is investigating whether its executive director diverted political funds for his own benefit.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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OLYMPIA — An investigation into whether the executive director of the Washington Senate Democratic Campaign Committee took political funds for his own benefit was prompted by unusual polling expenses after the 2012 election.

“This is what triggered the whole situation. During the campaign, we had all these reimbursements for things like polling and auto dialing. Those are normal expenses you would expect during the peak of the campaign,” said Jason Bennett, a partner at Argo Strategies, who was in charge of compliance for the committee.

“But then they continued in December and January.”

Bennett said he reported that
information to leadership Feb. 20. It then launched an investigation into handling of the committee’s funds by Michael King, the executive director.

Senate Democratic Campaign Committee (SDCC) leaders said they were stunned by the news.

“I can tell you, I’m devastated. I’m very upset by everything,” said state Sen. David Frockt, a co-chairman of the committee.”

Investigators are now trying to match the SDCC’s records of expenditures with vendors to determine how far back any discrepancies might go.

King joined the SDCC in 2011. He did not respond to messages left on his cellphone. His attorney said the 31-year-old is in an area hospital.

“On the advice of his physician and with the support of his family, Michael is currently seeking inpatient treatment for personal issues that he is committed to working through and overcoming,” attorney Lyle Tenpenny said.

“He intends to cooperate with the investigation, and looks forward to doing so after receiving this much-needed treatment.”

Paul Lawrence, an attorney with Pacifica Law Group, which was hired by the SDCC to investigate, said that “This is a very sad situation, but the evidence at this point is pretty clear that there was money taken by Michael for his own benefit.”

Lawrence and others would not speculate on how much money might have been taken.

Pacifica is working with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, the Seattle Police Department and the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission on the investigation.

The news website PubliCola first reported the investigation Friday night.

No charges have been filed against King, Lawrence said.

The SDCC has shut down his access to bank accounts, changed locks at the office and suspended King from his job, Lawrence said. King earned a salary of $78,000, he said.

According to King’s biography, he worked as a regional field director for U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s 2004 re-election campaign, and campaign director for the state Democratic Party’s 2008 coordinated campaign.

In 2009 and 2010, he worked at the Seattle-based WinPower Strategies, consulting mostly for Democratic candidates for the state House and the Port of Seattle.

Democratic Sens. Frockt, Sharon Nelson and Ed Murray, all of Seattle, serve as co-chairs of the SDCC. They all assumed their roles in 2012, after King was on the job.

Murray is also the state Senate Democratic leader and is running for mayor of Seattle.

All three senators, interviewed on Saturday, said the day-to-day job of running the committee was left to the executive director and they did not closely track the flow of money in and out of the SDCC’s accounts.

“I didn’t feel like that was what I was there to do. I thought I was there to be part of the political team to help us win the Senate,” Frockt said. “Our job was not to come in and be the CFO of the campaign committee.”

The senators said they jointly make decisions regarding which races to put money into and on paying for certain polls. But the details were left to King.

Nelson said the SDCC is hiring a new firm to do compliance and will look at ways to prevent similar problems in the future.

But she added, “You rely on a number of individuals when you’re in the campaign who are trusted employees, and you are comfortable that they are doing their job. To have something like this occur, it can happen with a church, it can happen with a Boys & Girls Club.”

Murray said he and the other co-chairs learned of what happened when Argo Strategies’ Bennett “informed us his business partner had heard from Michael King that King had taken funds inappropriately. This is how the information was relayed to us.”

Bennett said his firm was responsible for making sure the SDCC remained in compliance with PDC requirements by filing paperwork showing campaign contributions and expenditures.

In the case of the SDCC, Bennett also would deposit money for the committee and write checks for basic expenses such as rent and insurance. However, the executive director had the ability to write checks as well, and would handle reimbursements.

The SDCC raised $1.06 million and spent $1.02 million in 2012, according to the Public Disclosure Commission.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or agarber@seattletimes.com

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