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How the Coal Industry Funneled $40,000 into Whatcom

In the last four months, SSA Marine and BNSF Railroad have funneled thousands of dollars into Whatcom Republican candidates. While digging through the PDC in September, I discovered a whole series of very troubling donations from those in the coal shipping industry to the Republican candidates for County Council and the port commission.

I've compiled this information into an infographic to help explain how this is possible. Click the image to make it bigger.

It works like this: SSA Marine (under the name Pacific International Terminal) donates $30,000 to the state Republican party. BNSF Railroad donates $10,000. The state party, of which local Republican Luanne Van Werven is the vice-chair, turns around and gives $3,000 to local Whatcom candidates directly and $15,000 to the county party - keeping a healthy profit of $22,000 for future election purposes.

The county Republicans then donate $8,800 of that money to the local candidates, keeping $6,200 for get out the vote operations on the candidate's behalf.

By funnelling the money through the state and county parties, SSA Marine and BSNF Railroad has ensured that their names do not appear on any of the candidates disclosure forms - but the money still gets where it needs to go.

This sort of earmarking is illegal if not properly declared as such. Local political science professor Todd Donovan has filed a PDC complaint, which you can read here.

Legalities aside, I just find it troubling to see this wave of coal shipping funds propping up our Republican candidates. It raises serious doubts about how impartial they will be on the issue of the Gateway Pacific Terminal.

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About Riley Sweeney

Contributor • Member since Aug 10, 2009

Comments by Readers

Abe Jacobson

Oct 02, 2013

This is a fantastic piece of reporting- as good journalism ferreting as I’ve seen in many years in Whatcom County.

Thanks for the timely post. I do hope the “mainstream media” will deign to look into this… but not too hopeful.

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Riley Sweeney

Oct 02, 2013

Thank you John, for letting me share this with the readers and thank you Abe for your kind words.

This story needs to get out. I know the conservatives are deeply concerned about Washington Conservation Voters getting involved in these races . . . but I find coal money to be far more distressing. It seriously undermines the conservative candidates appearance of fairness and is a blatant attempt to buy our elections.

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Terry Wechsler

Oct 02, 2013

Thank you, Riley, for the post, and Todd, for the excellent letter. I just added my 2 cents via email (“Phil Stutzman”

):

Dear Mr. Stutzman,

Please refer to the attached September 30, 2013, letter from Todd Donovan of Bellingham, Washington, regarding earmarked donations from Pacific International Terminals (“PIT”) and BNSF through the Republican Party to candidates in Whatcom County elections.

I would ask you to also consider the issue of whether those donations triggered the Appearance of Fairness Doctrine. Both donors have permit applications pending before the Whatcom County council in the sense that the council will act in a quasi-judicial capacity in a future determination affecting the donors’ financial interests. Currently, the county’s office of Planning and Development Services is scoping an environmental impact statement (“EIS”) related to PIT and BNSF’s applications. Eventually, the county council will be voting on whether to accept or reject the recommendation of an independent hearing officer (“IHO”) whether to approve or deny permits based on the record received from the IHO.

It is my understanding that under Washington law, acceptance of a campaign contribution from those with matters pending before a council are not barred, RCW 42.36.050; Improvement Alliance v. Snohomish Co., 61 Wn.App. 64, 808 P.2d 781 (1991). However, such contributions must be reported. RCW 42.17. Would you please confirm whether those contributions were so reported by Whatcom County Council candidates Kershner, Knutzen, Luke, and Elenbaas?

Thank you very much for your time and attention.

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Tip Johnson

Oct 02, 2013

NOT Knutzen, Kirshner, Elenbass or Luke

http://www.nwcitizen.com/entry/as-goes-slaughter-so-goes-coal

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John Hatten

Oct 02, 2013

This article is what makes me proud to live in an open democracy, but what the article is pointing out is how easy it is to operate in the shadows. Thanks for the excellent reporting!

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Craig Mayberry

Oct 02, 2013

I appreciate the hypocrisy.  Washington Conservation Voters spending huge amounts of money on local candidates is only mildly distressing, but the coal industry now that is another story and is deeply distressing.  Frankly, it is deeply distressing that either special interest group if funneling huge money into local races.  I do get the issue that the way the coal money came is certainly unethical and it should be have been more upfront (I will at least give WCV kudos for not backing dooring it). 
Craig

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John Servais

Oct 02, 2013

Yes, Craig, as your last sentence notes, the “unethical” method the coal money came in is, indeed, the point.  Contrary to your first sentence, there is no hypocrisy.  Riley has exposed what was secret.  That is the point.

If Riley had slammed coal money coming in, then it would be hypocrisy.  But he did not.  So the needed element for hypocrisy is missing.  But that does not slow down you nor other conservatives on other blogs and online forums from pretending to be obtuse.  And misleading. 

Great article by Riley.  And Joel Connelly in today Seattle PI picks up on the issue - if not Riley’s story - to explain it to readers down there.  The courtesy that newspaper writers show to other newspapers that break a story - of noting who broke it first - is lacking in Joel’s article.  He could have easily noted the ‘Political Junkie’ in his article.  Small thinking.

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Craig Mayberry

Oct 02, 2013

John,  I was referring to this comment that he made below “This story needs to get out. I know the conservatives are deeply concerned about Washington Conservation Voters getting involved in these races . . . but I find coal money to be far more distressing. It seriously undermines the conservative candidates appearance of fairness and is a blatant attempt to buy our elections.”  Now maybe he was arguing that the reason that it undermines the appearance of fairness and is a blatant attempt to buy our elections is because of the way it was done, but that was not my interpretation of what he was saying.  I understood what he said as he finds the coal money distressing.  I thought the initial article was spot on and well done.  By the way, unions effectively do the same thing, they give huge amounts of money to the state democratic party which then filters down to county parties and candidates.  It is not like this is a new game, that does not make it right and is not in the spirit of transparency and full disclosure, but both sides do it.
Craig

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John Servais

Oct 02, 2013

Craig, appreciate the clarification.

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Craig Mayberry

Oct 02, 2013

John,  by the way I also have to take issue with your “But that does not slow down you nor other conservatives on other blogs and online forums from pretending to be obtuse.  And misleading.” statement as well.  Most of the republican party hates me because they do not think I am a conservative.  I certainly do not consider myself a conservative, nor do I consider myself a Republican or a Democrat.  I have voted for a few democrats and will likely be voting for one if not two democrat supported candidates in this election.  Politically I am all over the map, yes I am “conservative” when it comes to government spending, but I suspect you are the same way on that issue.  I tend to be “liberal” when it comes to environmental and some social issues.  I spend most of my day telling business students that profit is not the be all and end all of business and they need to be socially responsible first, a very “progressive” viewpoint.  I tend to be libertarian on a few issues as well.  I view my role on this website to make sure it is fair and balanced and getting all perspectives, if only the “progressive” viewpoint was talked about then this website would not add much value.

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Daniel Warner

Oct 03, 2013

Excellent reporting job!  This is not surprising of course, but it sort of undermines Ken Mann’s opponent who, picking up on the point that Ken was born in New York (gasp!) urges us on the campaign signs to “Vote Local.” 

The candidates who tout their “local” roots seem to imply that foreigners—anybody who has ever spent more than a two-week vacation outside of Whatcom County—don’t understand the local issues.  But people from places significantly ruined by development—southern California, for example—would be good candidates for helping to govern a place like ours, which is threatened with growth.  Really, there cannot be infinite growth in a finite place, and long before this county becomes as unpleasant as much of Los Angeles County is, most of the charm here will be irretrievably lost.  Moreover, what we want is not more jobs; what we want is less unemployment.  They are not the same because growth only increases the size of the population, it does not decrease the unemployment rate.

Thank you Riley and thanks John for your blog.

Dan Warner

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