Is AG Ferguson fishing for votes?
Circumstances around settlement checks continue to get more suspicious in Washington. Now, the State Auditor’s office has dismissed an ethics complaint against Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Bob Ferguson.
Ferguson sued major manufacturers of canned tuna and chicken such as StarKist, Bumblebee, and Chicken of the Sea alleging they conspired to fix prices from 2010 to 2013. In similar circumstances, a settlement, in this case $40.6 million, would go into the state’s general fund. But in this case, Ferguson announced in December 2023 he would send checks directly to households with income at or below 175% of the federal poverty level (for a family of four, that would be $52,500). The AG’s office said “These eligibility requirements are designed to ensure that this money goes to those Washingtonians most impacted by the corporations’ illegal conduct.” Washington Policy Center noted this seemed disingenuous seeing as no effort was made to determine who was impacted – those who actually purchased the chicken or tuna, when sending the checks.
Washington Coalition for Open Government President Emeritus Toby Nixon filed an ethics complaint against Ferguson with the Washington State Executive Ethics Board in late December. The complaint alleges “Bob Ferguson decided to send checks to hundreds of thousands or millions of lower-income people, giving them a portion of the settlement with chicken and tuna companies,” the complaint states. “He put his names on the check as the payer, AND he attached a letter to the checks that is blatant and illegal campaigning with public funds.” The complaint further alleges that it is a “blatant violation” of state law “for Ferguson, during an active campaign for governor, to send money to voters and have the checks indicate that it is coming from him by name and to include a letter extolling his virtues. It is absolutely, undeniably, attempting to buy people’s votes.”
That ethics complaint was dismissed January 3 in a letter from Assistant Director of State Audit and Special Investigations Jim Brownell. In the letter Brownell wrote, “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.” Nixon called the letter, and the argument “nonsense.”
Ethical considerations aren’t the only problem with the checks. As journalist Brandi Kruse reported, checks are also being sent to Washingtonians who are deceased, do not exist, or family members who are not associated with the address to which checks were sent.
Craig Payne, a wealthy 67-year old retiree, was one of the recipients. “There’s no way in the world we are meeting the criteria,” Payne told Seattle Times, who ran a story on the debacle. Simpluris, the company processing claims, says it has received 368 calls reporting issues with checks such as the recipient believing they made too much money to qualify or the recipient had passed away. However, there is no telling how many mis-issued checks were simply cashed rather than being reported. Ferguson is refusing to take accountability, instead blaming the data broker for giving them an imperfect list, saying “Obviously, on a data set that large, the system’s not going to be perfect.”
No one is asking for perfection. Washingtonians deserve an Attorney General and potential governor who acts ethically and a State Auditor who does the job rather than help to conceal any wrongdoing. Sending checks signed by a candidate directly to voters seems to be little more than “fishing” for votes. It’s time for more transparency among our elected officials, not more of the same old tricks.