No, there’s no PDC jail, but the state’s Public Disclosure Commission isn’t messing around with repeat, blatant violators of our state’s public disclosure law.
For over 50 years, the public has entrusted the PDC with authority to hold public officials accountable to the law and ensure transparency in our state and local government. So far this year, the Commission has issued $127,600 in fines for repeat violators, and we plan to continue working to hold these filers accountable to the principles of the law Washingtonian voters overwhelmingly approved. (Note that “we”: I am the senior member and past chair of the Commission.)
Each year, the agency considers hundreds of fairly routine violations of the state’s public disclosure laws. Most of these filers are not what you would call scofflaws. They’re often candidates in small districts; or maybe they’ve never previously run for office; or they’ve filed their personal financial affairs statement, or F-1, on time for years, only to have it slip their mind this past April.
It happens to the best of us — and we at the PDC make a point to balance education and punitive action in cases of honest mistakes. We pride ourselves on the “customer support” we provide candidates and campaigns to assist them in meeting their obligations.
But there are also filers who flout the rules year after year. Some ignore us altogether. Others tell us plainly that they have no plan to follow the law, either because they see no value in it, or because they find it a violation of their privacy.
Spare me a moment to rebut that argument. Take the F-1 (personal financial affairs statement). It is required to be filed annually by all elected officials, state agency directors, legislative and gubernatorial staff, and even state college trustees. Candidates must file it within two weeks of the beginning of their campaign. It includes information on their income, assets, debt, and business interests.
This isn’t a formality, and we don’t ask for this information out of idle curiosity. It’s the chance for public servants to offer their constituents transparency into potential conflicts of interest, to reassure them that they are acting in the public interest, not out of self-interest. The public themselves instituted these transparency requirements, when they created the PDC and the laws it enforces by an overwhelming 72% vote in 1972.
Same goes for political campaigns. The public depends on disclosure to know who and what is backing candidates and ballot measures. They use this information to inform the choices they make on their ballots. We at the PDC believe strongly that the public and media should have ready access to that information.
That’s why the agency has spent the past several years ramping up its enforcement efforts for delinquent filers. A recent example: In 2022, the Commission fined City of Buckley Mayor William “Beau” Burkett $10,000 for failing to file his personal financial disclosure form, after Burkett had failed to file three previous F-1 reports. Burkett also hasn’t paid his PDC fines. So, the PDC went to court. In August, a Pierce County Superior Court judge issued an order compelling Burkett to comply. Now he’ll be defying a court in addition to the PDC and facing contempt of court and/or liens on his property.
In future, I expect the Commission to follow the Burkett example in other instances of wanton disregard for disclosure that have been recently adjudicated. What these cases have in common is that the respondents ignored any attempt by the PDC to assist them or encourage their compliance.
We often suspend a large chunk of the penalties we issue, even for repeat violators. Because we are more interested in encouraging people to file reports and give the public the information they need than we are in collecting fines. But make no mistake, the Commission will act accordingly when faced with outright defiance. The public’s right to know deserves no less of a defense.