Sawant settles ethics charge, admitting violation

On Monday, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission will hold a special meeting at which it will vote on whether to approve a negotiated settlement with Councilmember Kshama Sawant over an ethics charge stemming from last year’s “Tax Amazon” ballot proposition campaign. The ethics charge is the basis for one of the three charges in the recall petition against Sawant.

As SCC Insight first reported, early in 2020 Sawant used city resources to support the “Tax Amazon” ballot proposition, which violates two laws: one prohibiting the use of city resources to promote ballot initiatives, and another prohibiting the use of city resources for non-city purposes. Sawant disagreed, arguing that her expenditures occurred before the ballot proposition had been filed and thus it was not in actuality a “ballot proposition” yet under the letter of the law. She made this argument both in front of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC), which charged her with the violation, and also in court as part of her defense against the recall petition. Recognizing that the Washington State Supreme court would likely issue a definitive legal ruling on Sawant’s argument when it issued its decision on the recall petition, the SEEC ethics violation charge was put on hold. Then last month the Court ruled against Sawant, finding that proposed ballot propositions are indeed covered under the law even before they are filed.

With the legal issue settled by the highest court in the state, Sawant had no alternative but to settle the ethics charge, as her attorney told the SEEC earlier this year she would likely do if the Supreme Curt ruled against her.

In the negotiated settlement agreement, which the SEEC must ratify in its meeting on Monday, Sawant admits to violations of both the Elections Code and the Ethics Code. She also agrees to pay the City of Seattle $3,515.74, twice the amount of the city funds that she expended in promoting the Tax Amazon initiative.

The admission of guilt is notable, because it undermines the messaging from her anti-recall campaign that calls the charges “dishonest claims.”

The SEEC will take up the matter Monday at 4pm in a special meeting.

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  1. Not too familiar with these processes, but what were the alternatives to settling, if any?

    1. The SEEC Executive Director sent her a Notice of Charges, and she formally challenged it. According to the SEEC procedures, the next step is a hearing in front of the Commission members, who then vote on whether to sustain the charges. That hearing was initially delayed by COVID since the law says that it must be an in-person hearing. Then it was delayed by the recall petition and the recognition that the state Supreme Court would likely issue a ruling on the law that would determine the outcome. The Commission said in March that once the Court ruled, they wanted the City and Sawant’s attorneys to agree on a briefing schedule and hearing date within two weeks. Instead of delivering that briefing and hearing schedule, they negotiated the settlement.

      I hope that helps.

  2. That’s helpful, thanks. So it seems like the odds were stacked against the defense after the state ruling, and they decided to settle instead of drawing out the process? Does that mean the state ruling found, without any doubt, that CM Sawant was guilty of that charge?

    1. The state ruling found that the asserted evidence was factually sufficient to justify the charge, sort of the way a court determines at arraignment whether the evidence is sufficient for a case to proceed to trial. In the case of recall, the courts don’t determine whether a charge (or specifically the evidence) is true or not; that’s left up to the voters who effectively serve as the “jury.” The courts determine whether the evidence, if true, is factually sufficient to prove that the charge is true.

      Sawant didn’t challenge any of the evidence, which was pretty bulletproof. Her argument was a legal one: that any actions taken before a ballot proposition is actually filed don’t count. The Supreme Court said “nope.” You can still take actions (and illegally use city resources) in support of a ballot proposition even before that proposition is filed.
      So yes, once the Supreme Court had ruled, she had no chance with the SEEC. She couldn’t challenge any of the evidence, and her legal theory had been completely shot down.

  3. Ok, that seems to make sense. Thanks for explaining all that.

    So then, legally speaking, is this settlement an admission of guilt?

    1. Yes. From the text of the agreement: “Sawant acknowledges that she violated the Seattle Ethics Code and the Elections Code when she supported a proposed ballot proposition in her official capacity, including by using the City seal, her City website, City funds and City employees to advance that ballot measure.”

      Sawant signed that agreement.

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