Washington watchdog asks What’s Upstream for explanation

An advertising sign on a Whatcom County, Wash., transit bus part of the What's Upstream campaign. The Washington Public Disclosure Commission has asked What's Upstream organizers to respond to allegations that it violated state law by failing to file grass-roots lobbying reports.

The Washington Public Disclosure Commission has asked What’s Upstream organizers to respond to allegations from a farm group that the advocacy campaign violated state law by failing to file grass-roots lobbying reports.

In a complaint to the PDC, Save Family Farm alleged that What’s Upstream tried to influence state legislation and should have registered with the commission.

The PDC reviewed the complaint and decided to look into it, PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson said Monday.

The PDC opened a case naming Swinomish Indian tribe environmental policy director Larry Wasserman, the lead organizer of What’s Upstream. Anderson said the PDC expects a response to the complaint in one week. Efforts to reach Wasserman for comment were unsuccessful.

The Swinomish tribe, based in north Puget Sound, received some $655,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency over five years. The tribe hired Seattle lobbying firm Strategies 360 to create a media campaign, advocating for stricter regulations on agriculture.

Save Family Farming, which was formed to respond to What’s Upstream, named in its complaint EPA Northwest Administrator Dennis McLerran and Strategies 360, along with Wasserman.

In an email Monday to the Capital Press, the EPA said neither it nor McLerran has been contacted by the PDC.

“The complaint confuses federal law with state law and fundamentally mischaracterizes our conversations with the Swinomish tribe,” according to the EPA.

EPA stopped funding What’s Upstream last spring after federal lawmakers alleged the campaign violated prohibitions on using federal funds to lobby.

Wasserman’s reports to the EPA indicated the goal of the campaign was to change state law.

The EPA’s Northwest office has said it reviewed the What’s Upstream website and concluded the campaign was not an illegal lobbying effort because it wasn’t advocating for or against a specific piece of pending legislation.

The EPA’s inspector general is auditing the use of the funds, which was passed through to the tribe from the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

Citing EPA records, Saving Family Farming noted Strategies 360 polled voters statewide to test messages that would increase support for mandatory 100-foot buffers between farm fields and waterways.

What’s Upstream also encouraged people to ask state lawmakers to consider imposing the buffers.

Individuals or groups who spend more than $700 in one month or $1,400 over three months to influence state legislation must file a grass-roots lobbying report, according to the PDC.

The PDC can levy a penalty of up to $10,000 for a violation.

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