Move will allow group to speak openly on campaign

By Marcy Stamper

Represent Okanogan County (ROC) has decided to register with the state as a political committee, although the group maintains that its focus is on voter education and participation and does not meet the legal definition of a political committee.

In a statement posted on its website on Friday (Aug. 5), ROC announced that its board will file required reports with the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) “in the spirit of cooperation and transparency.”

Registering as a political committee will give the group the option “to speak out openly and directly about the need to elect new Commissioners,” according to the statement.

Questions about ROC’s status were raised in June when the president of the Okanogan County Farm Bureau filed a complaint with the PDC charging that ROC was required to register as a political committee because ROC raised and spent money to influence the commissioners’ election. The complaint included examples of ads and signs placed by ROC that read “Wanted: New County Commissioners.”

In a response to the commission in June, ROC’s attorney asserted that the group’s fundraising supported its public-participation and voter-registration work and that no expenditures supported or opposed individual candidates.

Disclosure commission staff spoke with representatives of ROC on July 28 and asked them to register as a political committee, but the commission has not received a response yet, said PDC spokesperson Lori Anderson this week.

PDC staff are scheduled to meet later this week to discuss the case and evaluate their next steps, said Anderson. Even if ROC registers as a committee, any decision about whether to bring charges would be separate. That decision is based in part on what information the public should have had and how much money was involved, said Anderson.

The PDC can take several actions, said Anderson. The commission may thank the complainant for bringing the matter to its attention and drop the investigation. The PDC could also decide that the public had been deprived of important information about ROC’s activities and expenditures and charge the group with failure to disclose campaign activities, said Anderson. Any charges would be heard by the commissioners themselves.

If no individual contribution is more than $500 and a group doesn’t spend more than $5,000 on a single campaign, a group is only required to register as a committee. Larger expenditures require disclosure of all contributions and expenditures, said Anderson.

Simply bringing a case before the commissioners does not mean there will be any enforcement action or penalty, said Anderson. Penalties are up to $1,000 for minor infractions and $10,000 for more serious violations.

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 a political committee if influencing an election is not one of its primary purposes, said Anderson.

In addition to her role as Farm Bureau president, complainant Nicole Kuchenbuch is the campaign manager for incumbent County Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy.

ROC board president Gay Northrup was out of town and could not be reached by press time.