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State auditor dismisses ethics complaint against AG over chicken, tuna checks

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(The Center Square) – The Washington State Auditor’s Office has dismissed an ethics complaint filed against the state Attorney General’s Office alleging it sent out checks to hundreds of thousands of state residents from price-fixing lawsuit settlements with chicken and tuna producers in an effort to buy votes for Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s gubernatorial campaign.

Late last year, Ferguson announced he was sending out $40 million recovered from a recent lawsuit settlement to approximately 402,000 Washington households in the form of $50 and $120 checks. Although Ferguson claimed it would go to low-income households, independent journalist Brandi Kruse as well as state Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, have both reported individuals receiving checks who were either high-income, incorrectly identified, or even to people who died decades ago. The AGO has claimed that it derived its mailing list from Experian, a consumer credit reporting company.

The ethics complaint filed in December by Washington Coalition for Open Government President Emeritus Toby Nixon alleged that the checks, which had Ferguson’s name as the payer, was an illegal use of public money under state law. That law states that “no state officer or state employee may use or authorize the use of facilities of an agency, directly or indirectly, for the purpose of assisting a campaign for election of a person to an office or for the promotion of or opposition to a ballot proposition.”

The ethics complaint was originally sent to the Washington State Executive Ethics Board, which is staffed by AGO employees. The complaint was then forwarded to the auditor’s office.

In the Jan. 3 letter, Assistant Director of State Audit and Special Investigations Jim Brownell wrote that “based on the information in your complaint, it does not appear that the activity is either in support of a candidate’s campaign or is related to a ballot proposition. In our judgment, the announcement of a legal settlement is in line with Mr. Ferguson’s official duties as the State Attorney General. As such, this provision of the Ethics Act would not be applicable.”

In an email to The Center Square responding to the SAO’s letter, Nixon wrote that “the State Auditor’s Office believes that it is just fine for statewide elected officials who are active candidates to send checks for people, with the official’s name on the check, with a letter attached extolling their virtues. Apparently one has to explicitly say ‘Vote for me’ in the letter for it to be considered campaigning. Nonsense.”

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