Democratic Rep. Mike Sells says Democratic Leadership Should be Investigated Over Email Flap.

By Josh Feit March 17, 2009

Editors Note: This post has been updated.

The email that Democratic leaders in Olympia used as an excuse to kill a workers' rights bill actually didn't violate any laws, the Washington State Patrol said today. 

Rep. Mike Sells (D-38, Everett, Marysville), the sponsor of the doomed bill, says: "Why am I not surprised? There was no 'there' there."

Last week, Gov. Chris Gregoire, Sen. Majority Sen. Leader Lisa Brown (D-3, Spokane) and Speaker of the House Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43, Wallingford) tabled the bill—which they didn't support in the first place—after labor leaders sent a blustery email to supporters saying the state labor council (the WSLC) wouldn't contribute to the Democrats if the bill failed.

Gov. Gregoire and the Democratic leadership thought the email may have constituted an ethics violation. Others? Not so much

 Rep. Sells (D-Everett) says his leadership's reaction was more like "something you'd expect from the Evergreen Freedom Foundation."  

Sells says, "Now there should be an investigation into how this decision [the decision by Democratic leadership to turn over the WSLC email to the state patrol] was made. Was it a ploy to get rid of the bill?"

If it was a ploy, it looks like it worked. Rep. Sells says he will not try to resurrect the bill, adding that he'd have to make the case that the bill—which prohibited employers from forcing political or religious  or anti-union views on workers—was related to the budget. (The deadline for voting non-budget bills out of their respective chambers passed last week.) 

Sells thinks the email flap was a disingenuous way to kill the bill. "I'd have preferred it if they had just said, 'We don't like the bill.'" Sells groused. 

Here's the statement exonerating the Washington State Labor Council that was issued by investigators today:

Washington State Patrol detectives, after consulting with the Thurston County Prosecutor’s office, have determined that the e-mail sent to legislative leaders last week from an employee of the Washington State Labor Council did not constitute criminal conduct.

“We looked carefully at the e-mail and at the law,” said State Patrol Chief John R. Batiste. “We could not find a specific criminal statute that was violated.”

The e-mail appeared to tie future campaign contributions to legislative and gubernatorial action on a particular bill. Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, Speaker of the House Frank Chopp and Governor Chris Gregoire referred the matter to law enforcement.

“We certainly understand why the recipients were concerned,” said Batiste. “It was entirely appropriate for them to have requested a criminal review.”

Because detectives were quickly able to determine the e-mail did not violate criminal statutes, no investigation beyond the initial review was necessary.

At the request of the Public Disclosure Commission, all materials reviewed by WSP detectives will be forwarded to the commission.

This news certainly isn't surprising. Last week, when the bill was tabled, I wrote this:
What could the email ... possibly have said that pushed it into Rod Blagojevich territory as opposed to run-of-the-mill pressure that advocates use all time that comes with implications about financial support?

Rep. Sells [the sponsor] told me  he was wrestling with the same question, and wondered where threats from Boeing about leaving the state, for example, would fit on the ethical meter—and how that was any different. 

Below the jump, I've attached today's statement from WSLC leader Rick Bender, who emphasizes a point I reported above: The offending email was sent to supporters, not to any lawmakers the labor council was trying to persuade. 


Washington State Labor Council President Rick Bender said today that it was a "gross overreaction" for legislative leaders to refer an internal email among labor leaders to the Washington State Patrol for a criminal investigation. The WSP today announced that it "quickly" determined no laws had been broken.

Last week, a strategy meeting among labor leaders about supporting the Worker Privacy Act was held. Afterwards, an email report of that meeting was sent to all of the labor leaders that had been invited. But that report was inadvertently copied to an email group that included four state legislators — all of whom were sponsors of the Worker Privacy Act. The email was NOT sent to House Speaker Frank Chopp, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown or Governor Chris Gregoire, as today's news release by the Washington State Patrol suggests.

"It was an honest and regrettable mistake," said Rick Bender, President of the Washington State Labor Council. "It was very obviously intended to be an internal labor email — one that began with the salutation 'Brothers and Sisters,' which is never how we would address a state legislator. Referring the matter for possible criminal prosecution was a gross overreaction and never should have happened."

Apparently, this internal email report was forwarded by one of its recipients to House Speaker Frank Chopp and/or Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, who later shared it with Governor Chris Gregoire. None of them contacted the Labor Council for an explanation of the email before referring the matter to the Washington State Patrol.

"This whole thing never should have happened," Bender said. "An honest mistake occurred in copying this email to some legislators who already supported our legislation, so to characterize this internal email as some kind of threat to legislative leaders -- or a possible crime -- is absurd."

The Washington State Labor Council will cooperate fully with any Public Disclosure Commission investigation into this matter and is confident that it, too, will find no wrongdoing.
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