Nonprofit replies that it only promotes voter education, more participation

By Marcy Stamper

The Okanogan County Farm Bureau has filed a complaint with the state agency that regulates political contributions, charging Represent Okanogan County (ROC) with violating campaign finance laws.

But ROC says it restricts its activities to voter education and increasing civic participation and hasn’t violated state law.

Nicole Kuchenbuch, president of the Okanogan County Farm Bureau, filed the complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) on June 20, claiming that ROC is required to register as a political committee because the group has been raising and spending money to influence the commissioners’ election.

In the complaint, Kuchenbuch said ROC has been using an online fundraising campaign for “newspaper advertisements, radio advertisements, billboards and forums that aim to attach [sic] the two incumbent County Commissioners that are running for reelection.”

To back up her charges, she included a copy of a ROC newspaper ad that reads: “Wanted: New County Commissioners.” The ad states that it was paid for by ROC and gives the group’s website and address.

In a response sent to the PDC on Monday (June 27), an attorney for ROC said “ROC has been very careful to comply with the campaign finance laws. … All of ROC’s fundraising is intended to support ROC’s public participation and voter registration work. None of the funds are being raised to support or oppose candidates.”

The response asserts that the Farm Bureau complaint offers no basis for the claim that ROC is required to register as a political committee.

“The short ads that ROC prepared do not advocate for or against any candidate, nor do they identify any candidate by name,” according to the response.

Kuchenbuch said she became concerned about ROC’s activities after conversations about candidate forums being planned for the commissioners’ election. The campaign forums were going to be moderated by the educational foundation of the League of Women Voters, a nonprofit arm of the group, according to Ann Murphy, president of the Washington league.

A member of ROC contacted the league at the end of May to inquire about setting up forums for the four candidates running for each open commissioner seat, said Murphy. Although the state league does not typically hold forums for local races, because there is no Okanogan County chapter, they were looking into ways they could help, she said. The league had contacted several local organizations — including Kuchenbuch at the Farm Bureau — to solicit questions for the forum.

Because three volunteers with the league would have come to Okanogan County for the forum, local individuals were raising money to cover their travel expenses, meals and lodging, and costs for the two venues, said Murphy. Gay Northrup, president of ROC’s board, was one of the people helping with the fundraising efforts.

Kuchenbuch received a message on her answering machine on June 13 from Northrup, who said she was calling “on behalf of the League of Women Voters,” according to the Farm Bureau’s complaint. The phone message noted that the league had already contacted Kuchenbuch about questions to ask the candidates.

Kuchenbuch’s complaint contains a three-page transcript of her phone conversation with Northrup. “The following transcript is the conversation that transpired to the best of my recollection,” Kuchenbuch wrote. The transcript is quite detailed, showing where Northrup paused or said “um.”

In a phone interview last week, Kuchenbuch said she typed up the transcript about two hours after the phone call as accurately as she could remember. According to the transcript, Northrup explained they were looking for local businesses and civic groups to help cover costs of the forum.

During the conversation, Kuchenbuch pressed Northrup about her connection with the league. Northrup eventually said she was ROC’s president and that she was working with the league “to host a quality forum to give Okanogan County a real chance to be heard and to make informed decisions,” according to the transcript.

But Kuchenbuch told Northrup that ROC “seems solely intent on portraying a very ‘anti-incumbent’ message that is based upon half-truths and misinformation” and that it didn’t appear ROC was running a legitimate organization, according to the transcript. She scolded Northrup for starting the conversation dishonestly by suggesting she was connected with the League of Women Voters.

In ROC’s response to the Public Disclosure Commission, the group’s attorney pointed to the forum as an example of ROC’s work to increase voter awareness.

“ROC has educated voters about the opportunity to run for county commission and the issues facing Okanogan County, and it has conducted non-partisan voter registration and information campaigns, such as the non-partisan candidate forum discussed in the complaint,” he wrote.

The fact that ROC recruited both the Farm Bureau and the League of Women Voters to participate in the forum is further proof that ROC seeks to be a non-partisan source of information, not a political committee, he said.

In addition to being president of the Farm Bureau, Kuchenbuch is the campaign manager for incumbent County Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy, according to the candidate registration Kennedy filed with the PDC in March.

Northrup said she had “no interest in commenting” on the Farm Bureau complaint and referred the Methow Valley News to the response the ROC’s lawyer sent to the PDC.

League drops forum

Murphy said in an interview this week that the league had spent a week or two working on the candidate forum. But in a statement prepared on June 13, Murphy wrote, “The League of Women Voters of Washington, after careful and deliberate consideration, decided to withdraw from its participation in the Okanogan County Commissioners forums. … The League in its mission to provide non-partisan voter education must be scrupulous in partnering, and accepting donations (including in-kind) from any organization that directly supports or opposes any candidates.”

The league became concerned that ROC was a partisan organization because, by wanting new commissioners, the group was opposing the incumbents, said Murphy this week.

“We learned a whole lot about Okanogan County politics,” said Murphy.

Kuchenbuch said last week that Northrup’s solicitation of money had tipped her off that something was awry. But Murphy said the league is allowed to do fundraising — or to have another group raise money — to cover volunteers’ expenses, as long as the group is nonpartisan and properly organized, said Murphy.

Although Kuchenbuch said she was “offended” by Northrup’s misrepresentation and considered the situation serious enough to file the PDC complaint, she said she doesn’t think ROC was intentionally violating the law. “I genuinely believe it’s a group moving forward so fast that they lost track of the rules. I would like to think it’s a mistake of a new group,” she said.

Northrup said she was encouraged that several local groups, including the Okanogan, Twisp and Oroville granges, have stepped up to host candidate forums of their own. The only date that has been confirmed thus far is at the Okanogan Grange on July 18 at 7 p.m.

PDC assessment

The PDC is assessing the facts in the case, according to spokesperson Lori Anderson. After reviewing the complaint and ROC’s response, the agency will decide whether to take no action or to investigate further. Enforcement actions range from requiring a group to register and file campaign reports to other measures for more-complex situations, she said.

An organization becomes a political committee as soon as it expects to receive contributions or make expenditures supporting or opposing any candidate, according to a PDC guide for political committees. Solely raising money and advertising does not automatically make a group (such as a Kiwanis Club) a political committee, if influencing an election is not one of its primary purposes, said Anderson.