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Tuesday, August 16, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Chamber told to name donors to anti-Senn ads

Seattle Times chief political reporter

A King County judge says a business group must report who financed television ads that attacked Democratic attorney-general candidate Deborah Senn last year.

King County Superior Court Judge Richard Jones ruled Friday that the ads paid for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce constituted "express advocacy" against Senn's candidacy and were not designed merely to educate voters about an important issue, as the chamber argued.

That means the Voters Education Committee, the group listed as sponsoring the ads, needed to register as a political committee and report its contributions and expenditures.

Assistant Attorney General Linda Dalton said the ruling should clear the way for the state to argue before Jones that the committee should pay penalties and fines.

But the business group is likely to appeal, said its attorney, John White.

"The advertisements discussed official conduct of an elected official, and that's protected from government regulation by the First Amendment," White said.

"It was a factual presentation."

The ads began airing just about a year ago, before the September Democratic primary between Senn, a former state insurance commissioner, and Mark Sidran, the former Seattle city attorney. Initially, the consultant behind the Voters Education Committee refused to register the group with the state Public Disclosure Commission or disclose the chamber's involvement.

The ads criticized Senn's handling of the state's share of a national $1 billion settlement with Prudential Insurance over sales practices, and the fact that the Insurance Commissioner's Office lost accreditation from a national group during her tenure.

Records showed the money for the campaign came from the U.S. Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform, which focuses on restricting liability lawsuits and was involved in 25 state supreme-court and attorney-general campaigns nationwide. But the chamber has consistently refused to release details of where the money came from.

A chamber spokesman said before the election that the national group was contacted by Washington businesses that opposed Senn but would not say which companies or industries.

The Public Disclosure Commission sued the Voters Education Committee, saying state campaign laws required the committee to register as a political group and file detailed spending and fund-raising reports.

The committee also filed suit, arguing the ads were "issue advocacy" and exempt from the reporting requirements.

Senn won the primary against Sidran but lost in the November general election to Republican Rob McKenna.

Senn intervened in the lawsuit filed by the business group and asked McKenna to remove himself from the case.

Senn's attorney, Mike Withey, said the Voters Education Committee was a "sleeper cell" used by the chamber of commerce to manipulate the election. He wants the judge to require disclosure of all Washington-based companies and individuals who donated to the anti-Senn effort.

"This victory is a first step in holding the U.S. Chamber accountable," Withey said. "They essentially stood in the shadows and rolled the dice hoping this would be a legal ad. It turned out to be illegal, and therefore they should pay the penalty."

David Postman: 360-943-9882 or dpostman@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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