News

Agreed: No more politics forever

By PAT JENKINS

Editor

Former Des Moines City Council member Don Wasson has agreed to permanently stay out of elected politics following an investigation of his violations of state campaign laws.

The state Public Disclosure Commission formally accepted Tuesday a stipulated agreement with Wasson that he was involved in multiple violations, including concealing the source and amount of financial contributions to the campaigns of council candidates he supported.

The PDC claimed Wasson acted in tandem with a company that wanted council members who favored the firm’s plans to become a contractor on the third-runway project at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The agreement with Wasson, which included a civil penalty of $10,000 ($7,500 of it suspended unless he breaks more PDC laws in the future), was contingent upon him resigning, which he did earlier this month without disclosing the arrangement. He also agreed never to run for public office, serve as a campaign treasurer for any political committee or candidate, or solicit campaign contributions.

It’s the first time anyone in Washington has forfeited their right to seek and hold public office. Wasson essentially gave up that portion of his civil rights, said Doug Ellis, a PDC spokesman.

Ellis said the commission doesn’t have the authority to make such a requirement. The settlement was negotiated by the state attorney general’s office and Wasson’s attorney.

Wasson, who couldn’t be reached for comment after Tuesday’s announcement, was accused of being part of a scheme to secretly funnel campaign donations to council candidates in 1999 and 2001.

Also accused were Environmental Materials Transport and its president, Hank Hopkins, and TME Capital Group. The latter is a group of investors formed to finance Environmental Materials’ bid to build a conveyor belt from Des Moines to the airport to carry gravel for the proposed runway construction.

In another stipulated agreement accepted Tuesday in lieu of a full enforcement hearing, the commission cited Environmental Materials’ and TME’s “multiple violations” of campaign finance laws by concealing the source and amount of contributions to candidates in Des Moines’ 1999 council election. A civil penalty of $40,000 ($10,000 per violation, the maximum if the case had led to a conviction in Superior Court) and another $3,000 to cover part of the cost of PDC’s investigation accompanied the finding.

The PDC referred cases against Hopkins and a second individual, Joseph Coomer, to the state attorney general for further proceedings. The commission said its penalties are insufficient to address their alleged violations.

Hopkins, whose business interests are based in Lynnwood, allegedly concealed excess contributions to candidates in the 2001 council election.

Coomer, who is a Burien resident, and Concerned Citizens for Better Government didn’t report contributions received and expenditures made in 2001 and 2002 as required by state law, according to the PDC.

Cases also are still open against council members Gary Petersen and Richard Benjamin, who were among candidates the PDC said were targeted for illegal contributions. The commission wants more information, possibly in time for its April 22 meeting, before deciding if an enforcement hearing is necessary for allegations that they knowingly benefitted from illegal contributions.

Cases were dismissed against Councilwoman Maggie Steenrod and former 1999 council candidates Henry Foote Jr. and Martin Michalson, who also were alleged benefactors of the contributions. According to the PDC, Steenrod refused the offers of assistance, and there was no evidence that Foote and Michalson were part of any illegal activities.

The PDC said Hopkins was “interested in finding candidates who might further his goals of building the conveyor system.” He met with Wasson, who also wanted a council majority that favored his ideas, including appointing him as mayor, according to the commission.

Wasson supported Foote, Peterson, Benjamin and Steenrod in their 2001 campaigns for the council. He urged Hopkins to support them, too. Hopkins began paying a political consultant to conduct a public survey about the runway project and the candidates and to prepare campaign literature for the candidates, the PDC said.

Hopkins didn’t want to report the expenditures because he wanted to “keep a low profile,” according to the PDC, and Wasson didn’t report a contribution he received from Hopkins. In addition, Wasson allegedly told Peterson and Benjamin to report separate $750 in-kind contributions from him, but didn’t reveal that Hopkins was funding their campaigns.

In a prepared statement, Wasson said Wednesday that he didn’t solicit Hopkins’ contributions to candidates, nor was he aware of the contributions until after the 2001 election. He said he reached a settlement with the PDC “in order to accept responsibility for my failure to accurately report” a $1,000 contribution he received from Hopkins to benefit candidates.

Wasson said he hopes the settlement and his resignation “will help bring closure to this unfortunate chapter in Des Moines city politics.” He also apologized if his actions had “reflected badly” on council members.

Last year, Wasson was appointed mayor. He resigned the largely ceremonial title in January after the PDC launched its investigation of him. Steenrod was appointed by the council to replace him as mayor.

Al Furney, chairman of Citizens for Des Moines, a group that advocates “good government” and pushed for a PDC investigation, said he hopes the case “innoculates our city against this kind of money business for a long time to come.”

The PDC ruling caps a rocky eight months for Wasson. An attempted recall of him, Steenrod, Benjamin and Peterson was launched last August. Des Moines YES Recall Committee’s request was rejected by a King County Superior Court judge, but the decision was appealed to the state Supreme Court. The court hasn’t announced if it will consider the case.

Editor Pat Jenkins: 925-5565, editor@fedwaymirror.com

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