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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 16, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 42
37th District Democrats drama: Ethics Commission rejects charges, Dems admit improprieties but refuse to change endorsement
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37th District Democrats drama: Ethics Commission rejects charges, Dems admit improprieties but refuse to change endorsement

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

In a bizarre ending to a bizarre story, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission dismissed charges that Pamela Banks supporters bought the endorsement of the 37th District Democrats organization, and the group's chair admitted that ineligible people voted in the endorsement meeting, but the Dems refused to redo the flawed vote.

Supporters of City Council member Kshama Sawant had hoped for a 'no endorsement' vote from the Democrats, and she charged that Bruce Harrell's campaign paid for 15 new memberships in the 37th District organization to swing the vote toward Sawant's opponent, Pamela Banks.

Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative, could not be endorsed outright because she doesn't identify as a Democrat. Sawant supporters said they were not even allowed to mention her name at their group's endorsement meeting.

Sawant's supporters also charged that several of the new members were not eligible to vote for endorsements because they did not live in the 37th District. Since Banks won endorsement by less than three votes, they said, the vote should be redone with only eligible members voting.

The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) turned down their complaint, but without refuting many of their charges.

Of the allegations of wrongdoing lodged by Sawant's friends, only one was within SEEC's jurisdiction, the agency said.

'If an employer asked or directed an employee to engage in political activity, that employer would not violate any law administered by the Commission,' SEEC said. 'If contributions were 'bundled,' that would not violate any law administered by the Commission. If a legislative district's endorsement process were manipulated, that would not violate any law administered by the Commission.

'The only one of your allegations that falls within the jurisdiction of the Commission is that memberships - which are contributions under the City's Elections Code - were purchased by unknown persons for others in such a way as to conceal the true identity of the contributor.

'Our inquiry found no evidence to believe that occurred.'

In a statement, Bruce Harrell announced he'd been cleared of any wrongdoing and called for Sawant's supporters to apologize to the East African community 'so conciliation can begin for the 37th and all parties involved.' The 15 individuals whose memberships were being challenged were all reportedly of East African origin.

For his part, Harrell said, 'I look forward to helping heal the wound this incident has caused in the 37th Legislative District family. I hope we can be a stronger democratic organization moving forward, welcoming all new members.'

37th District chair admits flaws, but refuses to redo the vote

Meanwhile, Rory O'Sullivan, chair of the 37th District Democrats, admitted that many of the improprieties alleged by Sawant's supporters were true, but said he would not rescind the Banks endorsement.

'Our endorsement meeting was held on September 21, 2015, in which we considered endorsements in 19 races,' O'Sullivan wrote in a statement posted on the Democratic group's website.

'When we conducted our normal review of our sign-in records after a meeting, we determined that we inadvertently provided voting credentials to three individuals who were not eligible to vote...

'A review of the votes taken at our September 21, 2015, meeting show that there were three races that were decided by three or fewer votes: Seattle City Council District 3 [Sawant vs. Banks], Seattle City Council Position 8 [Burgess vs. Grant], and Seattle Proposition 1 [a transportation tax levy]. We do not know how the three individuals who were improperly credentialed voted. It is not our intent to rescind or take back any endorsements made at our endorsement meeting.'

The issue came up again at the group's October 12 meeting, where critics of the endorsement process asked for a revote with only eligible members participating. O'Sullivan ruled two motions to that effect out of order.

A subsequent motion to refer the whole endorsement process to an independent investigator was voted down, but the group did approve an executive board retreat 'to work through issues.'

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