Thursday, November 09, 2006

Abuse of office

[Click photo to see full letter.]

Reports of unethical Republican tactics continue to roll in post-election. Here in Washington state, as Noemie Maxwell at Washblog reports, we had a sitting attorney general named Rob McKenna -- one of the only Republican officeholders in the state -- sending out letters on official-looking letterhead to voters on the eve of the election that smeared a Democratic candidate for a state Senate seat.
Washington State's Republican Party has sent out a letter on official-looking but fake Attorney General letterhead that slams a Democratic candidate here in the 47th Legislative District -- and extols the virtues of the Republican candidate. McKenna misrepresents the Democrat's employment and accuses her of preying on the vulnerable. Relevant to note here is the fact that the candidate in question, Claudia Kauffman, has spent her career helping and protecting the vulnerable.

Here's a jpg of McKenna's letter. Interesting that Mr. McKenna would choose to denounce campaign literature of a local Democrat -- literature that stays on the issues and is respectful and ethical -- while he has repeatedly ignored illegal and questionable Republican behavior. Last year, there were the fake sex offender notices coming from Republican campaigns. In 2005, there was the use of illegally modified voter challenge forms to purge legitimate voters from Democratic areas from the rolls right before an election. In 2004, there were the illegal ads run against Deborah Senn by the US Chamber of Commerce.

Fortunately, McKenna's letter failed: Kauffman won 52.5 percent of the vote while her opponent, Mike Riley, got 47.5 percent. But the letter itself raises real ethical issues about the conduct of state officials, and reveals a legal loophole that needs to be closed.

Note the text of the letter:
In the final weeks of this campaign, I've been disturbed by the harshly negative campaign messages coming from his opponent, Claudia Kauffman. She is well known for her work, lobbying on behalf of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe on land use and other issues.

With her background, I would have thought Claudia Kauffman would have more experience than to turn to mud slinging and misleading ads at the last minute.

[Hey! Stop imitating Republicans!]
Our democracy treasures freedom of speech, but with freedom comes responsibility. In the business world, there are laws to protect consumers from fraudulent advertising. As Attorney General, it is my duty to assure that consumers are protected from scams and misleading ads. We have been aggressive in weeding out those businesses that prey on vulnerable people.

In politics, there are no consumer protection laws. Instead, it's up to each of us to view these attack mailers and television spots with a skeptical eye.

Unsurprisingly, there's no shortage of hypocrisy here. McKenna is moved to write this letter against a Democrat, but seems terribly uninterested in Republicans are involved. When Republicans began making shit up about Darcy Burner, McKenna's hand-wringing was nowhere in evidence.

Perhaps that's because McKenna himself has engaged in misleading campaign tactics.

But all that is somewhat beyond the point. The greater concern is that, unlike most elected state officials, the attorney general is a law enforcement officer. McKenna's use of a fake letterhead from the attorney general, with textual language implying some sort of shadiness or legal impropriety on Kauffman's part, is a real abuse of the authority implicit in that particular office.

Noemie reports, as you can see, that McKenna's office wrote assuring her that he did not break the law here:
I've verified that Attorney General McKenna did, in fact, authorize that letter under his signature, however, the letterhead on the letter is not the official "Office of the Attorney General" letterhead and as the letter reads, it was "paid for by the Washington State Republican Party."

Yes, in a tiny line at the bottom of the letter. Yet anyone looking at this letter would assume at first glance that it was sent out from the AG's office.

It's an ethical hole that needs closing. As Noemie tells me in correspondence:
There may be no current legal basis to prosecute him on this (though I wouldn't conclude that for sure). But if there isn't there should be. It should be illegal for a group to send out fake letterhead of a state office -- and for a state official to approve that. The legislature had to outlaw the sending out of fake sex offender notifications..... They should do this, no?

State officials of either party should not be able to abuse the authority of their office for campaign purposes. Closing this ethical loophole strikes me as a no-brainer for the next legislative session.

-- Dave

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