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Originally published March 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 24, 2008 at 1:50 AM

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Seattle to revisit election finance

During the fall election, the head of Seattle's elections office noticed a curious pattern of contributions. The Seattle firefighters union...

Seattle Times staff reporter

During the fall election, the head of Seattle's elections office noticed a curious pattern of contributions.

The Seattle firefighters union sent money to campaigns in Spokane, South King County and Puyallup, and in each case, firefighter unions in those cities later gave the exact same amount to Tim Burgess' campaign for Seattle City Council.

Wayne Barnett, executive director for the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, began investigating to see if this was an attempt to skirt contribution limits. Union officials told him no deal had been struck to exchange donations.

Barnett last month said there was not enough evidence to prove the firefighters had violated elections law.

Still, the commission plans to draft a new rule clarifying exactly what would amount to a violation.

Burgess, who served on the ethics commission from 1989 to 2001, says he asked the Seattle firefighters union about the contributions when he noticed them last fall but said, "It didn't raise any red flags for me at all."

In defeating one-term incumbent David Della on the council, Burgess' campaign raised a record $353,000.

Barnett says the commission is going to be vigilant about investigating future cases. "If we're able to establish a quid pro quo exchange of contributions, the parties of that quid pro quo will be charged with violating elections code," he said.

In this case, Barnett said he could not prove the unions had broken the law without supporting testimony or more circumstantial evidence.

"There was circumstantial evidence here — just the timing of the contributions in and of itself," he said. But "the oral testimony we got wasn't enough to overcome that."

In September, the South King County firefighters union, Local 2024, donated $700, the maximum donation allowed, to the campaign of Burgess, whom the Seattle firefighters union had endorsed. Two days later, the political-action committee for Seattle Fire Fighters Local 27 contributed $700 to the union for the South King County Fire Department to support a levy campaign. The contribution limit in Seattle is $700 per donor.

The Seattle union also contributed $700 to a Spokane mayoral candidate, after which the Spokane firefighters union gave $700 to Burgess' campaign. The same pattern occurred in a Puyallup City Council race after a $200 donation from the Seattle union to a Puyallup candidate. Kenny Stuart, vice president of the Seattle firefighters union, said many unions in the state have been working on expanding their political influence beyond their city borders, and the donations reflect that.

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"We reached out to locals across the state, let them know we had an important race, let them know who we were supporting," he said. "Those locals made their own decisions."

Other unions gave Stuart information on key races they were supporting, for instance, the South King County fire levy.

"They expressed to us that they had a fire levy, Prop. 1, that was very important to them and that they needed support for that," he said. "We made a contribution to their levy."

Stuart said his union has supported campaigns outside Seattle in the past, such as congressional and state legislative races but could not remember specific examples in which the union had contributed money to races in other municipalities.

Mike Bacon, political-action director for the Spokane union International Association of Fire Fighters Local 29, said, "We were having trouble with our mayor; they were having trouble with City Council. I felt compelled to help them out because we have a good relationship with all the firefighters in the state."

Burgess said when he asked the union about the contributions, "They told me all the firefighters around the state were organizing much more aggressively to be in campaigns," said Burgess, who now chairs the Seattle City Council's public-safety committee. Some called him to discuss his position on public safety; others did not.

Burgess, a former Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission chair, has publicly criticized campaign-finance violations. In a 2006 commentary he wrote for The Seattle Times, Burgess criticized Frank Colacurcio Sr. for reimbursing donors to 2003 City Council campaigns while he was seeking a zoning change for his Lake City strip club.

In January, the ethics commission settled with Colacurcio and his son for $55,000 for the reimbursements.

Barnett said the two investigations were very different.

"With Strippergate, there were people who frankly admitted that they took money from the Colacurcios and turned around and wrote checks to the campaigns," Barnett said. "This is very different in that sense. What we're talking about here are contributions, all of them reported, to two candidates."

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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