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Surplus funds campaign finance complaint against Spokane Councilmember dismissed

Courtesy of Zack Zappone
Spokane City Councilman Zack Zappone when he was running for Spokane City Council.

The body that oversees Washington campaign finance regulations has dismissed a complaint against Spokane City Councilman Zack Zappone.

His case, testing a new interpretation of long-standing state law, generated concern and confusion from candidates, as well as political and good government groups across the state.

This spring the Public Disclosure Commission reinterpreted a longstanding rule about moving surplus money from a candidate’s previous campaign to a current one.

The move came just after Bob Ferguson transferred $1.3 million from his old campaign for attorney general, to his new campaign for governor.

When the PDC approved the change, it didn’t say whether the new interpretation was retroactive. That led to a complaint against Zack Zappone. He had transferred money from his unsuccessful 2020 campaign for state representative, to his 2021 run for Spokane City Council.

During an enforcement hearing last month, Zappone said P-D-C was at risk of punishing many candidates who made good-faith efforts to follow the law.

“How much can candidates trust PDC staff and guidance if we have a violation, or are found to follow what's been recommended for years, and that can just change on you overnight, and you can go back, and retroactively be found to have a penalty, or violation, I think that could set a precedent of trust in the PDC, and I think that's something that's important to consider.”

Zappone’s concerns were echoed across the state, from leaders involved in the League of Women Voters, to Conner Edwards, a political consultant and campaign treasurer.

“Even if it’s a finding of violation without a penalty, the issuance of a warning letter, or requiring the respondent to refund donors, will open the floodgates from gadflies on both sides of the political divide over transfers to campaigns from the distance past, that, like Mr. Zappone, had relied on the agency's guidance,” Edwards said.

In their written decision, the PDC board said Zappone couldn’t have known official guidance would change later. It added that the new interpretation did not apply to his campaign, which concluded nearly two years ago.

“The 2021 election campaign and general election have concluded. All the campaign funds have been spent or distributed and application of Interpretation 23-01 to completed prior year elections in this case is unwarranted,” the ruling read.

In response to questions about how broadly the ruling can be applied – a PDC spokesperson said staff had not yet received further guidance beyond the written order in Zappone’s case.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.