Chamber of Commerce deals another blow to public perception of the political process
Public Citizen, the national consumer activist group, is urging campaign finance authorities in Washington state to sue the US Chamber of Commerce over its role last year in funding TV ads attacking a Democratic candidate for state attorney general.
I don't know if what the Chamber of Commerce did was illegal, but I know it was unethical, dishonest, and sleazy.
The ads attacking Deborah Senn began two weeks before her name appeared on the ballot for the Democratic primary. They accused her of engaging in a "cover up" related to an incident in the 1990s, when Senn was state insurance commissioner. The ads claimed she had agreed to suspend most of a $700,000 fine against an insurance company "in exchange for [its] agreement to pay for four new staff members in Senn's own office."
The ads had been purchased by a local group calling itself the Voter Education Committee. It was not until two days before the election that the committee admitted its $1.5 million campaign against Senn had been entirely funded by the Chamber of Commerce and its Institute for Legal Reform, apparently concerned that Senn might be a little too consumer-friendly.
A King County Superior Court judge has already ruled that the ads crossed the line from voter education into the kind of campaign advocacy that is regulated by the state Public Disclosure Commission, which will hold a penalty hearing in April of next year. But Public Citizen and other groups would like to see stronger action taken.
"An important component of any election is transparency," says Seattle University law professor Joaquin Avila, who filed the petition asking for stronger legal action against the Chamber. "To make an informed choice, voters need to know whether any special interests are supporting or opposing any candidate's campaign."
Whatever the legalities of the case, there is no doubt that the so-called Voter Education Committee was a classic front group, the kind of organization created by special interests for the specific purpose of misleading the public about the source of information. Either the Chamber was embarrassed to be associated with the attack on Senn's character, or it believed it could make the criticism more credible by masking its involvement.
Either way, the group's intent was clearly to deceive. Whatever the legal outcome, its actions will only serve to fuel the public's cynicism about the political process in this country and the role powerful corporate lobbyists play in that process.
Not that the Chamber will care much about the integrity of American democracy. After all, it got the desired result: Senn won the primary, but was defeated in the general election.
- Paul Holmes has spent the past 18 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.