BY SCOTT BREEN
OLYMPIA, Washington - At its April 27 meeting, the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) rejected an appeal from the Socialist Workers 1998 State Campaign Committee, refusing to eliminate an audit provision included in the 1998 disclosure exemption order it had granted the campaign. The campaign committee had appealed the audit provision because it undermines the right to keep the names of contributors and vendors confidential.
The PDC had granted the Socialist Workers campaign an exemption from disclosing this information last year, but included language that would allow a "third party" to review the Campaign's financial books, including the names, addresses, and occupations of its contributors and vendors, if the PDC declared it necessary. This is the first time, anywhere in the country, that an audit provision has been included in a disclosure exemption granted to a Socialist Workers election campaign committee. The provision says "if the PDC determines a review of the applicant's books of account is necessary, the records shall be made available to an independent third party mutually agreed to by the applicant and the PDC."
The PDC first heard the Campaign's appeal on Jan. 26, 1999.
At that hearing, the commission decided to table a decision after several commissioners said they had voted for the provision thinking that an auditor would only review the coded books the campaign keeps for the purpose of filing the required forms with the PDC, not the actual names, addresses, and occupations. They instructed the PDC staff and the campaign's attorney to explore a possible compromise.
The PDC reconsidered this issue at its April 27 meeting. It rejected a motion made by Commissioner Ron Meyers to "strike the language from this order" regarding the third party review, as requested by the Socialist Workers 1998 State Campaign. At the hearing, the PDC staff reiterated its stance that the campaign's books should be subject to a full audit, including access to the names of its contributors.
Representing the Socialist Workers Campaign, attorney Mark Eide explained there was "no way we could agree to common language" with the PDC staff regarding an independent audit of campaign records.
Eide recounted the constitutional issues at the heart of the Campaign's appeal, and reviewed the legal rulings upholding the Socialist Workers Campaign's right to privacy, free speech, and voluntary association. This included the U.S. Supreme Court's 1982 decision in Brown v. Ohio where the Court explicitly "ruled that the state government [of Ohio] did not have the right to see the socialists' books," Eide told the Commission.
Eide explained the U.S. Constitution requires that the commission not allow any disclosure of these names, because "of the chilling effect on party-building" that other court rulings have underlined in granting exemption status to minor parties like the Socialist Workers Party. He wanted to know why, in the four or more years that he has represented the Socialist Workers Party before the PDC, this was the first time an audit had ever been brought up, yet there had been no changes in the state laws or statutes.
In the discussion, Commissioner Ronda Cahill expressed her support for keeping the language intact, pointing to the exemption order that included the same audit provision that they granted the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) candidate for Washington State representative last year, without being appealed. "We want to keep all the reporting modifications granted third parties in conformity" she explained.
Meyers added a dissent to the record. He said the audit provision, in his view, "was at odds with Washington State Supreme Court rulings" as well as the FEC and federal court orders. This provision, he continued, should have been rescinded because it "carved out new legal precedents" without legislation.
Several supporters of the Socialist Workers' appeal attended the public hearing. Steve Sanders, president of United Transportation Union (UTU) Local 324, said afterwards he saw no difference between seeking an exemption from disclosure of campaign contributors and "trying to organize a nonunion job site. I have talked with workers who are very afraid of losing their jobs if they sign up on union representation cards and don't want the boss to find out."
Prior to the hearing, more than 50 supporters of the Campaign's right to an exemption had written letters to the PDC opposing the audit provision. Thirty-two workers at Alaska Airlines, mechanics represented by AMFA (Airline Mechanics Fraternal Association) and ramp workers in the IAM (International Association of Machinists), sent letters of protest to the PDC.
Norma Kelsey, president of OPEIU (Office and Professional Employees International Union) no. 8, told the PDC, "To have someone outside the Campaign examine the names, addresses, and occupations of its contributors is a violation of the rights to privacy, free speech, and voluntary association which previous PDC rulings have upheld."
American Civil Liberties Union member John Gear wrote, "Cases such as the SWP's (where supporters have been subject to retribution and abuse by public officials) require that you grant them unqualified exemptions to the public reporting rules."In a cover letter to his e-mail list of friends and associates, Gear urged them to send their own fax messages to the PDC, "The right to free association is hollow if disclosure laws open you to covert investigation and not-so- covert retribution for its exercise."
After the hearing, Scott Breen, representing the Socialist Workers Campaign told supporters of the fight for democratic rights, "We believe that it is more necessary than ever to defend these First Amendment rights. We will continue to fight every attempt, no matter how small it may seem, to erode our exemption and the rights of our contributors and vendors, and oppose any intervention by government bodies - city, state, or federal - into the internal affairs of working-class organizations like the Socialist Workers Party."
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