A Puget Sound tribe’s six-figure Environmental Protection Agency-funded campaign to limit farming in Washington state didn’t spend enough money on one key element to be seen as grass-roots lobbying, according to a Public Disclosure Commission staff report.
The report released Friday concludes that a “take action” link on the tribe’s What’s Upstream website “could have been considered a grass-roots lobbying expenditure.”
But, according to the report, spending on the link apparently didn’t exceed $1,400, the threshold for triggering reporting requirements to the PDC.
The link was part of a six-year, $655,000 campaign plotted by the Swinomish Indian Tribe to change state regulations, according to previously released EPA records.
The link facilitated a letter-writing campaign to legislators in 2016, making a pitch for 100-foot buffers between farms and waterways.
PDC Executive Director Evelyn Fielding Lopez said that regardless of how much was spent specifically on the link, the staff did not consider it a lobbying activity. The form letters generated by the link did not advocate for a specific bill or ballot initiative, she said.
“It’s not really a good policy that you would have to be registered with the state every time you’re discussing ideas,” Lopez said.
The website remains up. The “take action” link was active for about five months prior to and during the 2016 legislative session. The EPA asked the tribe to take down the link in April after some federal lawmakers accused the EPA of financing illegal lobbying. The EPA’s inspector general is auditing whether the tribe and Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission broke federal laws.
The PDC staff will recommend Thursday that the agency’s citizen commission clear the tribe, EPA and Seattle lobbying firm Strategies 360 of breaking state law by failing to register What’s Upstream as a political committee or grass-roots lobbying organization. The PDC staff also will send the report to the state attorney general’s office for review.
“I don’t think it was grass-roots lobbying, and the staff doesn’t think so, but there’s always a little room for individual opinions,” Lopez said.
The PDC investigated in response to a complaint by Save Family Farming. The group alleged What’s Upstream tried to influence legislators and researched the chances of passing a ballot initiative. The tribe presented the idea of actually filing an initiative, but withdrew the plan after the EPA balked.
“Apparently, the (PDC) believes that spending $600,000 of public money for the stated purpose of influencing legislators to pass very specific measures and to build public support for a citizen’s initiative are not concrete steps,” Save Family Farming director Gerald Baron said in an email. “We are left wondering, what is concrete?”
An EPA spokesman said the agency had no comment Friday.
The tribe’s environmental policy director, Larry Wasserman, the campaign’s lead organizer, and Strategies 360 Vice President of Communications Jeff Reading did not respond to requests for comment. Reading worked on the campaign and responded to the complaint.
Although it’s unclear how much was spent directly on the “take action” link, previously released EPA records show that developing and promoting the website cost far more than $1,400.
An original and a revised website cost more than $34,000 to build. The tribe purchased more than $60,000 worth of billboard space and radio advertising to promote the website in late 2015 and early 2016. The tribe spent an undisclosed amount of EPA funds to hire Strategies 360 to poll voters and develop advertising material over several years.
The PDC report describes Strategies 360 as “a vendor.”
Save Family Farming’s complaint specifically named former EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLerran, but the investigation concluded that McLerran didn’t authorize or engage in lobbying.
Investigators noted that the tribe hired an Olympia lobbyist, who registered with the PDC, to represent it during the 2016 session on a narrowly focused bill that would have required property owners enrolled in a voluntary farmland preservation program to leave riparian buffers.
The tribe and EPA had both argued that the state’s PDC had no jurisdiction over them. Lopez said the staff cleared What’s Upstream on other grounds. “From my perspective, that is still an open question,” she said.
The PDC commission can levy fines of up to $10,000. The attorney general can seek stiffer penalties in court. Washington is generally considered to have among the most stringent political reporting requirements in the country.