Even where disclosure laws are among the strongest in the country, political party committees have succeeded in keeping millions of dollars in receipts off the books and hidden from public view.
In the 2000 election cycle, the Washington State Democratic Central Committee failed to properly report nearly $6 million in soft money transferred to from national parties during the 2000 elections, the Center for Public Integrity reported on June 25.
Yet Washington earned the second-highest ranking among the states in the Center's survey of campaign finance disclosure laws.
The Washington Public Disclosure Commission, the state election regulatory agency, has also found accounting problems at the Washington Republican State Committee. The PDC identified nearly $6 million in alleged illegal transfers from the Republican National Committee and affiliated committees to the state GOP, and has asked that Republicans turn the money over to the state's general fund.
The Center first documented the reporting discrepancies in "State Secrets" this summer. The study, conducted jointly with the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute for Money in State Politics, found that state parties raised $570 million in the 2000 elections, with nearly half of that coming in the form of unregulated, unlimited "soft money" transfers from the accounts of the national party committees.
Since the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee must report soft money transfers to the Federal Election Commission, those federal records were analyzed, as well.
The Center found wide discrepancies between what was reported at the federal and state level. State party organizations across the country had failed to disclose millions of dollars in soft money transfers. Nationally, state parties underreported their soft money receipts by at least $16 million.
Washington was the most dramatic example of faulty reporting.
Lack of teeth in enforcement
The Washington State Democratic Central Committee reported to state elections officials that it had received $705,040 in soft money transfers from the national Democratic committees during the 2000 election cycle. But FEC records pegged the amount at far more – $6.6 million. It was the biggest discrepancy between the amount of soft money any state had reported receiving from their national headquarters and how much the national offices told the federal government they disbursed.
In July, at the PDC filed an official complaint against state Democrats, based on the inaccuracies revealed in the State Secrets project.
According to the complaint, the Washington State Democratic Central Committee filed 24 late reports disclosing $2.8 million in soft money transfers from federal political committees. The reports were filed up to a year after the 2000 elections.
"I acknowledge that these are serious reporting flaws," SDCC Director Paul Berendt told the Seattle Times. "I'm going to bend over backwards to work with the disclosure agency to make it right." Contacted by the Center, he declined to comment on the matter, since a PDC investigation of the party is ongoing.
Berendt blamed his party's enormous lapse in reporting on staffing and computer problems, according to the Seattle Times.
Whatever the cause, the Washington State Democratic Central Committee was able to avoid disclosure requirements that are among the most rigorous in the nation for nearly a year and a half.
Washington state requires:
- A minimum of 10 separate dates throughout the year on which disclosure reports must be filed by party committees, during both election years and during non-election years.
- Political parties that give or receive more than $25,000 in a year must file electronically, making public access faster and easier.
- So-called "late" contribution and expenditure reports must be filed before an election takes place.
- Penalties are assessed for late and incomplete disclosure reports.
The toughest statutes are meaningless, though, when Washington's budget-writers leave the PDC understaffed and under funded, year after year, said Doug Ellis, a spokesman for the PDC.
The PDC has a 25-member staff and an average annual budget of $1.2 million. That's not enough to do the job, Ellis said. "If the legislature wanted us to be more aggressive, they'd fund us more, and they don't," he told the Center.
Ellis said that the department conducted random audits rather than intensively review each form a party submits during an election cycle. When a committee fails to file a report, Ellis said, it is hard to track down accurate information due to lack of paperwork.
"With the Democrats, the paper trail was on the federal level," Ellis said. "It happened during a time when we weren't conducting an audit."
Twenty-two months after the last vote was counted in the 2000 Washington elections, the PDC continues to investigate how much money was raised by the state political parties.
Phillip Caston was a database intern. He currently reports for the Capital News Service in Annapolis during his second year in the journalism masters program at the University of Maryland-College Park.