The confession by former political operative Michael King to stealing up to $330,000 from the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee (SDCC) continues to ripple through Seattle political circles.
In the latest twist, an attorney for Senate Democratic leaders has asked the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) to review payments to the organization’s former treasurer, Seattle political consultant Jason Bennett.
Bennett is not being accused of any involvement in King’s embezzlement — indeed he was the one who brought the thefts to the attention of state Sen. Ed Murray and other co-chairs of the SDCC earlier this year. But as Murray campaigns for mayor, he and other SDCC leaders have sought to point some blame at Bennett for failing to prevent the thefts.
Raising a new issue, Paul Lawrence, an attorney for Senate Democratic leaders, asked the PDC in an Oct. 7 letter to examine $36,000 in payments to Bennett’s firm, Argo Strategies. The money was reported to the PDC as for a “database project.” But Lawrence, citing King’s confession to prosecutors, wrote that the cash may instead have been paid to Argo so the firm could in turn pay the salary of a Democratic candidate for Senate while she ran for office. That candidate, Maureen Judge, ran unsuccessfully last year against state Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island.
King, the campaign committee’s former executive director, told prosecutors “Jason and I had cut a deal” to send along the money so that Judge “could pay her mortgage while she was running for office,” according to a transcript of the confession released to The Seattle Times after a public-disclosure request.
The SDCC’s co-chairs had no knowledge of any such arrangement and “it does not appear that Argo ever delivered a database to the SDCC,” Lawrence wrote in his letter to the PDC. He said the Democrats wished to “continue to work with the PDC as it investigates” the consequences of any inaccurate campaign filings that may have resulted.
Bennett said in an interview that King was wrong and there was no scheme to pay Judge out of SDCC funds while she ran for office. “I can assure you that’s not the case,” he said.
Argo did hire Judge to help her out while she campaigned because she is a single mother and small businesswoman who couldn’t afford to run without some salary, Bennett said. However, Judge did legitimate work on the firm’s website and marketing plans and was not paid out of SDCC funds, he said.
Bennett added that Argo did produce a database related to political donors and would be turning that over to the SDCC.
Judge couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.
King pleaded guilty to eight theft counts earlier this month and faces 24 to 29 months in prison when he is sentenced Nov. 22. In his confession, King said he stole the money to fuel increasingly out-of-control alcohol and gambling addictions.
The embezzlement case has become an issue in the Seattle mayoral race as Mayor Mike McGinn has pummeled Murray’s oversight of the committee. King’s thefts, which he covered up by inventing bogus expense reimbursements for polling, siphoned cash that could have turned around a key state Senate race in Southwestern Washington last year. The Democrats’ loss in that race allowed the takeover of the state Senate this year by a Republican-dominated coalition.
Murray has taken limited responsibility for the failures but repeatedly points out he was new to the leadership role and could not have been expected to discover King’s deceit.