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Wednesday, June 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Campaign cashes in before new donation limits

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — Real-estate developers and others in the construction industry gave more than $100,000 to state Supreme Court candidate John Groen in the final weeks before strict new limits on campaign donations went into effect.

The surge of donations gave Groen a big campaign cash advantage over incumbent Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, who chose to abide by the new law before its June 7 effective date. State lawmakers approved the new limits in March.

Groen, a prominent property-rights attorney from Bellevue, is trying to join two other conservative justices — Jim Johnson and Richard Sanders — who in the past have received heavy support from the state's building industry.

Of the five people who so far are running for one of three Supreme Court seats on this year's ballot, Groen is the only one who chose not to follow the new limits before their effective date.

Groen's campaign defended that decision on Tuesday.

"We followed the law," said Charlie Klinge, one of Groen's law partners and chairman of his fundraising committee.

But Alexander's campaign accused Groen of flouting the spirit of the new law and urged him to return the excess donations.

"Eleventh-hour donations just under the wire of the effective date of the new campaign-donations law demonstrates an intent to manipulate the electorate," Stu Morgan, Alexander's campaign chairman, said in a written statement.

Campaign spending in Supreme Court races has soared in recent years, thanks largely to the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) and its allies. During the past two elections, the builders spent more than $420,000 to help Johnson win a seat.

Johnson won in his second try in 2004, outspending his opponent by a ratio of more than 3-1.

Alarmed by the homebuilders' growing influence, the Democrat-controlled Legislature this spring passed a law requiring judicial candidates to adhere to the same limits that apply to campaigns for other statewide offices.

Under the new law, the maximum that an individual or group can give to a Supreme Court or Court of Appeals candidate is $2,800 — $1,400 each for the primary and general elections.

Alexander lobbied in favor of the new limits.

Groen, who has represented the BIAW and is a past chairman of the group's legal committee, announced his candidacy in April. He has painted Alexander and others on the court as "activist" judges who have ignored constitutionally protected property rights.

Campaign manager Laurel Christiansen said Groen needed to take advantage of the brief window before the new limits took effect because he is less known than Alexander, who has been on the court since 1995.

Groen's campaign Web site reminded potential donors that before June 7 there were no contribution limits.

Last month, Groen received 11 donations totaling about $100,000 that would exceed the new limits.

Much of that came from BIAW members, including $15,000 from Aho Construction in Vancouver and $25,000 from Lynnwood homebuilders Larry and Diane Sundquist. He got $35,000 from the owners of a lumber company in White Salmon, Klickitat County.

As of May 31, Groen had raised nearly $130,000 — compared with less than $28,000 raised by Alexander, according to the latest filings with the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Groen received additional donations in excess of the new limits after May 31, but Klinge said those won't be tallied until next week.

Morgan, Alexander's campaign chairman, speculated that the BIAW coordinated Groen's effort to take in as much money as possible before the new law took effect.

But Larry Sundquist, president of Sundquist Homes, said he never talked to anyone from the BIAW about giving to Groen. He said he's supporting Groen because of his work as a property-rights litigator.

"I just basically have a philosophy that we need to have the courts upholding the law and not making it," Sundquist said.

Whatever fundraising advantage Groen has gained will likely be blunted because the new law required that any over-the-limit donations received before June 7 also had to be spent by that time.

The Groen campaign went on a spending spree before the limit deadline, but declined to say what it bought.

Groen's support from the builders also will be offset by a political-action committee, FairPAC, a coalition of labor unions and liberal groups.

Political-action committees are not bound by the new campaign-finance limits. As of May 31, FairPAC had received $22,000, including $10,000 from labor groups and $5,000 from Naral Pro-Choice Washington.

"They're not going to sit on the sidelines while BIAW and its allies try to buy another seat on the Supreme Court," said FairPAC spokeswoman Lisa MacLean.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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