Attack PAC urges voters to "reject" candidate for ethics violations

UPDATED

[box type="info" style="rounded" border="full"]Correction: This article has been modified to reflect the following change in the fourth to last paragraph: The words "it was revealed" have been changed to "the accusation was made" to better reflect the reality of the situation: "Following the public reading of the emails, the accusation was made that two council members who had voted in favor of the investigation, Asher and Greenway, had political ties with Bill Sherman." Jessica Greenway did not have political ties with Bill Sherman. In 2007 the two were photographed standing next to each other. That was the first time they had met. We apologize for any misrepresentation. - Editor[/box]

A Political Action Committee (PAC) named, Concerned Citizens of Kirkland (CCoK), made a splash around town on Monday when their "Reject Bob Sternoff for ethics violations" signs popped up in the pre-dawn hours. Their mission: prevent Bob Sternoff from being reelected to the Kirkland City Council. The novel approach of creating what has been described as an "attack PAC" has not been seen in Kirkland politics. The signs, often placed in close proximity to Sternoff for Kirkland City Council signs, direct voters to www.concernedcitizensofkirkland.com.

It takes a deep-seated grievance to launch such a campaign against a sitting city council member. It also takes money. We sought answers to who did this and why they were so motivated and what we found was a tangled web of events and associations, centered around the 2009 city council investigation into emails written by Bob Sternoff which were deemed to be of an "inappropriate nature."

Needless to say, the arrival of CCoK onto the political landscape has set Kirkland politicos abuzz. As is often the case in politics, one's perspective depends largely upon who's ox is being gored.

To be clear, Bob Sternoff's opponent in the election, Jason Gardiner, is not a part of CCoK as he expressed in the following statement to Kirkland Views:

When I entered this election, I gave my word that I would not campaign based on another candidate’s failures. Rather I promised to honestly and directly communicate my view points on issues so that a vote for me was in fact a vote for Jason Gardiner, and not a vote to get rid of the incumbent. It is important to me to maintain an above-board campaign effort in all things.

I learned of the political action committee “Concerned Citizens of Kirkland” as many of you did, by seeing one of their signs while driving to drop my daughter off at school this morning. I applaud any citizen who takes an active interest in reaching out to their community to share their views, to organize in a common cause, and help inform their fellow citizens for the upcoming election. I am not a member of this or any local political action committee. Some residents have not found the current city councilman to be as transparent and upfront in his behavior as we need our political leaders to be, and a few have chosen to express themselves in a less than fair way, such as vandalism of yard signs. I would ask all involved to avoid activities that create false impressions about any candidate. If elected I promise to earn your trust by providing respectful and attentive representation of all of the Kirkland residents in upfront and honest manner.

Jason Gardiner

Who is Concerned Citizens of Kirkland (CCoK)?

According to the About page at www.concernedcitizensofkirkland.com, CCoK is:

...a group of concerned citizens who have been involved in the City for many years. We are standing up to identify issues that we feel have had a negative impact on our City. Our objective is to focus on issues of import, probing them deeply to give you the truth. We will drive our elected officials and City staff to make appropriate changes giving the citizens of Kirkland the voice they deserve and a visible presence in the process…

The About page continues with a detailed explanation of the claim against Sternoff.

There are no actual names listed on the website to answer the question, who are the Concerned Citizens of Kirkland? A search of the PDC records reveals that the campaign manager is Michael Beaton and the treasurer is Kenneth Albinger. Voter registration records show both Beaton and Albinger are registered to vote at the same Kirkland address.

We contacted Kenneth Albinger, a senior manager at Casne Engineering in Yarrow Bay, and asked him to explain the goals of the CCoK campaign. "If it was just an embarrassment or mistakes of minor judgement, we wouldn't bring this up," Albinger said referring to emails written by by Sternoff during council meetings. "A restraining order kept this out of the public eye in October, 2009. That kept it under wraps while the controversy was brewing. A lot of these emails bring up character issues about Bob."

Albinger expressed that this campaign is more about preventing Sternoff from being reelected than it is about supporting his opponent, Jason Gardiner. "I've listened to Jason at all of the forums and I see he is an aspiring representative for the annexation area and rest of Kirkland."

When asked if he has endorsed any candidates in the Kirkland City Council race, Albinger replied, "I have endorsed Jessica Greenway. I haven't endorsed Jason but I may in the future."

A Washington State Public Disclosure Commission search confirms Albinger's statement that he has not supported Jason Gardiner. To date, Albinger has not made any political contributions to Gardiner's campaign. Records for 2011 show that Albinger has limited his political campaign contributions to Dave Asher ($500), Jessica Greenway ($800), and Richard Mitchell ($1,300).

The CCoK website solicits donations from like-minded supporters. When asked why no CCoK members' names are listed on the website, Albinger agreed that more transparency was needed. As of this writing, no member names have been listed. As a PAC, the law says CCoK can conceal its donors until just eight days before the election.

Background

At the heart of the CCoK campaign against Sternoff is the cascading series of events following a Public Documents Request made to the City of Kirkland in 2009. The request was made by Scott St. Clair, journalist with the Evergreen Freedom Foundation (EFF) for communication between city council members as part of an effort to see if council members improperly conferred with each other via email. The EFF never found what they were looking for and did not peruse the matter further. Uncovered in the subsequent data dump to the EFF from the City of Kirkland was a series of private email communications between Sternoff and a private citizen who shall remain unnamed. Some of the emails were deemed to be of a personal or "inappropriate nature". All were released to the public. Sternoff had inadvertently sent personal emails from an account which was hosted on City of Kirkland servers. The city determined that Sternoff's emails were subject to public disclosure and released them in their entirety.

At the September 1 2009 Kirkland City Council meeting, Sternoff read from a prepared statement apologizing for his emailing during council meetings. But the council decided to investigate if any laws had been broken and voted 4 to 3 to retain a third party to investigate the Sternoff emails. Bill Sherman, a former Deputy Prosecuting Attorney with King County was hired by the council to conduct an investigation. Sherman produced an analysis of the emails which was to became known as the Sherman Report.

In early October 2009, the private citizen who shall remain unnamed filed a claim for damages against the City of Kirkland in the amount of $750,000 for violating that person's federal and state civil rights when the city released unredacted personal emails harming an innocent third party. That same week Sternoff filed for, and was granted, a temporary restraining order on the City of Kirkland to prevent the city from disclosing the Sherman Report in any manner.

On January 19, 2010 the Kirkland City Council voted unanimously to discontinue action against Sternoff and made public the Sherman Report.

During this entire period, the Kirkland City Council was fiercely divided, in large part because of previous clashes. In 2008, the council was embroiled in a scandal involving then-council member Hodgson who, while sitting in his roll as judge during a quasi-judicial appeal of the Bank of America development, handed privileged papers to the appellant's lawyers to the utter dismay of his fellow council members and to the defendant in the case. Chaos ensued in council chambers when a call came out from the dias ordering the officer on duty to secure the privileged papers. Eventually a settlement was reached, Hodgson publicly apologized for his wrongdoing and the council voted to put the incident behind them. Deep divisions formed during this episode remain to this day between some council members.

Conclusion

To supporters of Sternoff, the entire process -- from the original unredacted release of emails by the City of Kirkland to the investigation of Sternoff's emails and the resulting Sherman Report -- was suspect and viewed as a political vendetta.

To Sternoff's detractors, the investigation into his emails was seen as both justified and appropriate. They stood before the council and read aloud excerpts from the emails, focused on those of an "inappropriate nature," and called for Sternoff's resignation.

Of course, there was an opposing perspective which was presented by supporters of Sternoff.

Following the public reading of the emails, it was revealed the accusation was made that two council members who had voted in favor of the investigation, Asher and Greenway, had political ties with Bill Sherman, the author of the Sherman Report. To supporters of Sternoff, the selection of Sherman as the investigator of these events brought into question the fairness of the Sherman Report. Again, depending upon one's perspective, this is either important or not.

Many oxen are being gored during this political season and Kirkland is living up to its reputation of being a town where politics is a bloodsport. The rumors surrounding how the 45th District Democrats jumped into this race with their unusual move of endorsing Gardiner, an Independent, are fascinating. But at this point, they are only rumors, so we will not include them here.

With the general election only three and a half weeks away (ballots are to be mailed to King County voters on October 19) it looks like we have not seen the last of political attacks. There is likely more on the horizon.

It seems another dirty political season is upon us.