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Originally published Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 6:43 PM

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Guest columnist

Time for a do-over in the 38th Legislative District's Senate primary

The Washington Public Disclosure Commission referred campaign-finance violations against Moxie Media to the state attorney general's office. Two former 38th Legislative District senators, a Democrat and a Republican, urge the targeted primary election be set aside and another held.

Special to The Times

CLOSE elections are won on the margins. Never was this truer than in this year's 38th Legislative District Senate top-two primary election.

With callous disregard for the public trust, a Seattle political consulting firm stole this election — not from the candidates, but from the voters.

As two former senators from this district, one Democrat and one Republican, we believe the fairest solution might be to set aside the primary and hold a special election, paid for by Moxie Media.

We extend kudos to the state's campaign-finance watchdog agency, the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), which last week took the unusual step of rejecting a staff-recommended agreement that included Moxie Media and its president Lisa MacLean paying a $30,000 fine and admitting guilt. Instead the PDC voted 3-0 to refer the case to Attorney General Rob McKenna for further investigation. Within hours, the AG filed suit, alleging multiple campaign-finance violations.

Moxie Media handles mostly progressive candidates. In this race, the firm spent more than $250,000 in contributions from organized labor and plaintiff's lawyer groups to attack incumbent Sen. Jean Berkey, D-Everett, (with her 84 percent labor voting record) and boost newcomer Nick Harper, also a Democrat.

Seeing that more needed to be done to oust Berkey in the primary, Moxie Media settled on a "squeeze the middle" strategy. A third candidate, Rod Reiger, who listed his party preference as Conservative Party, hadn't mounted a vigorous campaign, raising only $800. So in order to inflate his vote count, Moxie Media created political action committees with names including "Conservative PAC" and "Cut Taxes PAC" — names clearly designed to mislead voters about who was really paying for his campaign.

According to e-mails that are now part of the PDC record, MacLean made it clear to her funders she was shifting money from various PACs into these new committees. She even told the funders that invoices could be paid later so that PDC filings — which are the public's only true way to "follow the money" in political campaigns — would not reflect the late influx of cash until after the election was over.

It worked. Suffering withering attacks from both the left and right, Berkey came in third place and did not advance to the general election. Harper was the lead vote-getter, and Reiger outpaced Berkey by only 122 votes. The carefully targeted and concealed attack from the right accrued to the benefit of Reiger and was the linchpin of the campaign to oust Berkey.

This Moxie Media effort was exceeded in its brazenness only by its cynicism. To so intentionally launder campaign dollars by building a labyrinth of PACs in an effort to shield funding sources from public view, while articulating campaign messages anathema to their donors, clearly violates campaign disclosure laws and the spirit on which our representative government rests.

Moxie Media has demonstrated a willingness to do what it takes, whatever it takes, to win. A fine is not a satisfactory punishment in this case — even if it were seven figures, it would just become part of Moxie Media's cost of doing business.

This contest needs to be overturned if our election laws are to be meaningful and to send a clear message to Moxie Media, its allies and others sure to face temptation to follow in its footsteps.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that groups have a right to free speech in elections. Courts have also held that groups can say whatever they want, without regard to the truth. The only safeguard against this is accurate and timely disclosure of campaign financing.

Voters must be able to determine who the supporters funding a candidate are.

We know it is easy to get carried away in the heat of a close election. This is not a problem endemic to one political party. It does, however, threaten the foundation of representative government — public confidence in the fairness of elections.

We urge the state attorney general and the Snohomish County prosecutor to work together to investigate and prosecute those who have — with premeditation — spent so freely to mislead voters, then blatantly abused the intent and letter of public-disclosure laws.

We urge our courts to set aside the Aug. 19 primary results. We further urge the Senate not to seat the general election winner.

Finally, we urge the court and elections officials to hold a new election for the 38th District Senate seat.

It does not belong to either Harper or Reiger or the special interests that paid for Sen. Berkey's defeat. It belongs to the citizens of the 38th District — they deserve the chance to cast their votes knowing the truth about each candidate, supporters and all.

Gary Strannigan, left. a Republican, served the 38th Legislative District as senator from 1995 to 1999. Larry Vognild, a Democrat, served the district as a senator from 1979 to 1995 and was the Senate majority leader. He also served as Berkey's campaign manager.

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