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Paying the Piper 

by Dan Richardson


As Spokane County's assessor went to trial this week, there wasn't any question of her guilt. Sadie Charlene Cooney agreed more than a year ago that she campaigned for office with public personnel on public time. Question is, how much will breaking the state's campaign laws cost her?


Cooney's violations of state law, according to court documents: during her 1998 re-election campaign, she used county equipment in her office, had county employees help her send out a campaign mailing, and indirectly solicited employees who she managed by asking them to attend fundraising parties.


"She's admitted those violations. She has from the get-go," says her attorney, Thomas Luciani of Spokane.


Cooney's trial was scheduled for Wednesday, March 6, and Thursday, March 7, at Spokane County Superior Court. By press time late Tuesday afternoon, the parties had not reached a plea agreement they'd been discussing for some time.


What Cooney has denied all along -- for two years now -- is that she retaliated against several employees who didn't support her re-election. Since the state's Attorney General's Office has dropped those allegations, all that remains is to settle the violations Cooney has admitted.


That comes down to dollars, say lawyers for both sides.


"The trial boils down to the fact that the parties have not been able to agree on an appropriate penalty," says Robert Hargreaves, the assistant attorney general in charge of prosecuting the case.


Cooney thinks her five violations should be assessed at a few hundred dollars, according to Superior Court records. (She did not return telephone messages from The Inlander.) State officials believe she should pay thousands. The lawyers won't say how much fine they've been discussing, but Luciani says the potential tens of thousands of dollars allowed under state law isn't the problem.


"The fines pale in comparison to the investigation costs and attorney fees they're trying to recover," says Luciani of the Attorney General's Office. In other words, think of more than a year's worth of attorneys' hours on the bill.


The amount Cooney must eventually pay is up to Richard Miller, the judge hearing the case; there won't be a jury. Part of Miller's decision will likely be based on whether he believes Cooney acted intentionally or made honest errors of judgment.


The Assessor's Office is an independent branch of county government responsible for determining property values, and thus, how much people pay in property taxes. Cooney worked in the office for more than 25 years until being appointed as its chief in 1992. County voters have re-elected her ever since, despite a couple of accusations from other government officials concerning her bungling of some tax matters in recent years. (Cooney and company say these were complications arising from new computer systems.)


During her re-election campaign in 1998, Cooney raised $21,826.13 in cash and kind, according to documents filed with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission. That money came from a number of donors. Cooney has admitted indirectly asking for money from her employees at the Assessor's Office by asking them to attend fundraising functions, lawyers say. Some employees also helped her stuff, label or stamp campaign envelopes on county time, on county premises -- actions that are illegal under Washington law.


Not all employees supported Cooney. One blew the whistle by alerting the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), which investigates campaign violations. The PDC looked into those irregularities and also allegations that Cooney retaliated against employees who didn't fall into line behind her campaign. In December 2000, a year into the investigation, and armed with Cooney's admitted violation, the PDC commissioners heard the matter -- and passed it to the Attorney General's Office. Why? Because under state law, the PDC can only fine someone up to $2,500, no matter how many campaign violations are involved, officials say. In other words, PDC commissioners wanted to see Cooney punished more than they could punish her.


(In the understated language of the legally bound, the PDC referral came "because they didn't believe they had sufficient enforcement authority," says PDC Assistant Director Susan Harris. Or, as prosecutor Hargreaves deadpans, "Referring a case to the Attorney General for prosecution... because the PDC feels its penalties aren't high enough, I think it's probably safe to say, is the exception rather than the rule.")


Under state civil law, campaign violators may face fines as high as $10,000 per violation. A judge may treble the damages if he finds that the violations were intentional. In Cooney's case, that equals a potential penalty of $150,000 -- a sumo wrestler's crushing blow compared to the PDC's slap on the wrist. Hargreaves says the state won't ask for that high an amount, but Luciani characterizes the potential costs to Cooney as "substantial."


As for the state's most damning allegations, those about retaliation, the evidence just wasn't there, says Hargreaves. But the issue did not drop off the radar screen entirely. One Assessor's Office employee, Lynda Rouse, left the office seven months after alerting the PDC to Cooney's illegal campaigning, and she later filed a U.S. District Court lawsuit against Cooney and Spokane County, alleging wrongful discharge and violation of her First Amendment free speech rights. Rouse and Cooney worked in the same office for more than 30 years.


Cooney and the county continue to deny wrongdoing, but the parties settled the matter this past October, according to court records and county documents. The settlement price tag: $110,000, plus a requirement that Rouse and her husband not speak about the matter "with anyone," and that Rouse tell the PDC she wanted out of its action against Cooney.
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