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Dispute follows Spokane County Measure 1 over campaign spending, transparency

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(The Center Square) – In the months leading up to the November election, a political action committee called Justice Not Jails was formed to oppose Spokane County’s Measure 1, which would have created a sales and use tax. Within two months, the PAC received almost $500,000 from two nonprofit organizations, the Seattle-based Inatai Foundation and the Empire Health Community Advocacy Fund.

The Justice Not Jails PAC ultimately raised $527,000, more than the amount of money Spokane mayoral candidate and former Department of Commerce director Lisa Brown raised for her successful November campaign.

The contributions by EHCAF specifically and subsequent transfer of funds by Justice Not Jails to other PACs has drawn criticism. Among those critics is Sue Lani Madsen, one of the founders and former board chair of Empire Health Foundation, a 501(c)3 that focuses on healthcare in seven counties located in eastern Washington.

Meanwhile, the advocacy fund, a separate entity from the foundation, says the criticism is misplaced and rooted in a separate vision of the advocacy fund’s current mission.

The Empire Health Foundation was created in 2008 through the sale of Deaconess and Valley Medical Center. The foundation’s president is Zeke Smith, who also heads EHCAF and was recently named as a member of Mayor-elect Brown’s transition team.

EHCAF is a separate 501(c)4, though it is owned and controlled by the foundation. Its bylaws require a majority of the members of the EHCAF Board must be board members or staff from the foundation.

In October, Madsen filed a complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission against the advocacy fund, arguing that because it donated more than $35,000 to Justice Not Jails and is solely controlled by the Empire Health Foundation it is required to form what is called an “incidental committee” and identify major donors of more than $10,000 per the state’s 2018 DISCLOSE ACT. That law is intended to ensure transparency regarding nonprofits that participate in state elections.

In a response letter dated Nov. 3 to the PDC, fund attorney Matthew Daley argued that Madsen’s complaint did not have merit because the organization did not meet other requirements before it was necessary to form an incidental committee. The PDC is currently reviewing the complaint.

The complaint is one of several issues raised by Madsen and others. Among them is the purported use of those rapidly amassed funds, when all indications prior to the November election was that Spokane County’s Measure One appeared dead on arrival. Poll results in 2021 showed that the idea had just 40% in favor of a sales tax increase to pay for the jail. The measure ultimately received 36.67% of voter support.

Justice Not Jails filed with the PDC on Aug. 7 as a political action committee. On Sept. 26, the PAC received $240,500 from the EHCAF.

On Oct. 5, Justice Not Jails received the exact same amount from the Inatai Foundation. The two donations comprised 96% of all contributions to the PAC.

In an interview with The Center Square, Smith said the advocacy fund decided to contribute to Justice Not Jails after hearing presentations from both sides, but also “from our engagement with a number of community partners who were concerned about the measure.”

Among those concerns is that the measure was not well defined over how the money would be spent. Prior to the election, opponents successfully fought in court to get the ballot language changed to include “correctional infrastructure” among the things the new tax would fund.

“We were really following the lead of our community partners,” Smith said.

However, Jim Hedemark, whose political work dates back to Tom Foley’s 1994 reelection campaign and provided consulting services to the pro-Measure 1 campaign committee Jobs for Justice, questions the need to donate so much to a campaign heavily favored already.

Hedemark wrote in an email to The Center Square that “a half-a-million dollars, especially from two nonprofit agencies to support a ballot measure is uncommon. While trade associations and unions do contribute frequently and substantially in support of their members, I’m not familiar with such elaborate donations by charitable organizations and foundations. This is not just a windfall, but a tornado of money.”

Smith told The Center Square that while the contribution was meant to defeat Measure 1, “we felt like there was an opportunity to kind of build that capacity around advocacy, around civic engagement, and organizing,” as well as provide the heads of Justice Not Jails with “experience that can be used moving forward.”

“I think they [EHCAF] felt they were a strong community voice on this issue and we really wanted to support that,” he added. “We had significant public safety and criminal justice and health issues in our community that don’t have enough resources to address and support.”

In an Oct. 25 press release statement, Inatai wrote that “our support of Justice Not Jails is inspired by the bold vision of community leaders who dare to imagine and fight for a different future. Defeating the measure would not only stop the expansion of Spokane County’s harmful carceral system, but it would also create an opportunity to pursue research-backed solutions crafted by and for the community. This is the type of transformation Inatai aspires to by shifting the balance of power to community-rooted organizations.”

Yet, Hedemark wrote: “$150,000 to $200,000 in total spending would be in line with a countywide ballot measure campaign, if you have that kind of money. However, that begs the question, where did the other $300,000 go?”

In addition to $30,000 in expenditures on $7,500 per-person stipends for the PAC’s committee officers, Justice Not Jails made a $90,000 contribution to the Spokane Community Against Racism (SCAR) Political Action Committee. Both share the same treasurer, Geoffrey Bracken, a project manager at the Department of Commerce. The $90,000 contribution made up 76% of the PAC’s total contributions this year to date.

Three days later, SCARPAC made a similar contribution of $89,910 to Seattle-based Our Votes Count, another political action committee. That donation represents 66% of the PAC’s total contributions and almost the same amount in expenditures this year to date. According to PDC reports, OVC spent $13,000 on direct mailing and canvassing in support of several Spokane city council candidates, including Lisa Brown.

Efforts to reach Justice Not Jails by phone and email for comment were unsuccessful.

When asked about Justice Not Jails use of its funds, Smith wrote in an email that “I don’t have a comment on how the Justice Not Jails Campaign spent their money. EHCAF provided a contribution to support their efforts and trust their decision-making on how to use that funding.”

Madsen noted in an email that while EHCAF invested a quarter of a million dollars into a campaign with lopsided polling, it donated nothing in opposition to two similar initiatives in Stevens County, located within Empire Health Foundation’s mandated service area, which would increase the local sale tax to build a new justice center and expand jail bed capacity. Both were overwhelmingly approved by voters.

“Assuming the public welfare/social justice goal of EHCAF was to oppose additional funding for new jails/new jail capacity, why was there no attention paid to two similar measures in Stevens County?” she wrote in an email.

However, Smith said that while the advocacy fund was aware of the Stevens County initiative, they “didn’t have the same sort of community resistance or voice on the issue. If it did, we would have taken a deeper look at it.”

Madsen also wrote that “as a member of the founding board of the Empire Health Foundation, watching EHF funds funneled through EHCAF to a series of progressive nonprofits is an appalling breach of our original intent to support healthy communities in our seven-county service area. EHF can’t be trusted as a neutral convener in eastern Washington when EHCAF is paying to play statewide progressive politics.”

Smith said the assertion conflates the foundation with the advocacy fund. “It wasn’t Empire Health Foundation. It’s the (501)c4 that took these actions. Private foundations wouldn’t and don’t engage in political contributions, because it would be inappropriate to do so.”

He added that “our mission is focused on improving health equity (and) trying to hone in on the communities that are most impacted from health inequities. We define health and health equity in pretty broad terms. Sue Lani’s definition is pretty narrow, but we’ve looked at it in a broader way.”

Editor’s note: Sue Lani Madsen is a freelance reporter with The Center Square.

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