Just weeks after Spokane City Council member Jonathan Bingle submitted an ethics complaint against former Council President Ben Stuckart last year, Bingle faced an ethical dilemma of his own.
In his May 4, 2022, press release announcing the complaint, Bingle condemned Stuckart for being involved in discussions about selecting a homeless shelter operator, when one of the candidates was proposing giving Stuckart a $150,000 job should it be selected.
"The citizens of Spokane deserve to know that the process to select a new shelter has integrity and that their hard-earned taxpayer dollars are being stewarded appropriately," Bingle is quoted as saying in the press release.
But, back then, when the Inlander asked him if anyone else besides his council aide was involved in writing the ethics complaint and the subsequent press release, Bingle had to decide whether to tell the truth.
He didn't. Instead, he argued, repeatedly, defensively, that no one else was involved. "The complaint, the press release, all of that is my language," Bingle insisted, more than once.
Now, more than a year later, confronted with new evidence, Bingle admits that wasn't true. Not for the complaint, not for the press release.
"That is not something I wrote alone," Bingle says.
To start with, he says, he had the help of Emily Strode, a consultant who'd worked on his 2021 campaign. Along with consulting for numerous political candidates, including Al French, she worked for five years under U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, most recently as the Republican congresswoman's campaign manager in 2021.
Last week, thanks to a live link to a collaborative Google Docs file where Bingle's press release was drafted, the Inlander was able to see that the involvement of Strode and other McMorris Rodgers veterans went far deeper: Bingle's press release draft was reviewed and tweaked by Dawn Sugasa, Strode's boss at the local consulting firm, Town Square Strategies, who had spent 14 years as the finance director for the McMorris Rodgers fundraising operation.
And the supposed quotes from Bingle about the importance of "hard-earned taxpayer dollars" being "stewarded appropriately" was language added by Patrick Bell, McMorris Rodgers' current deputy chief of staff.
"I have occasionally provided thoughts or edits on documents relating to local government matters," Bell says in a text message, after multiple requests for comment.
Strode did not return phone calls. Sugasa emailed back to decline to answer questions about clients.
In fact, some of Strode and Bell's drafts suggested Bingle go even further by filing an ethics complaint against his colleague, Council President Breean Beggs, with allegations he'd inappropriately distributed information about the proposed shelter. Bingle ultimately declined to do so.
It's more evidence for the theory that Beggs and other progressive council members have been floating for a year: It's all part of a political plot. In context, it looks like part of an organized salvo from professional political operatives to use ethics complaints, record requests and litigation to further muddy up the reputation of local left-leaning politicians, sometimes years before the election.
"I think the public deserves to know that all these random things that are popping up are not random," Beggs says, when told of Strode and Bell's involvement. "They're part of a group effort by a small group of very wealthy people who have a political agenda."
Beyond ghostwriting ethics complaints, Strode has been plenty active behind the scenes.
She rallied support to get the Trent homeless shelter lease signed. She organized phone banking efforts to oppose a redistricting map designed by liberal Council member Zack Zappone. She recruited attendees to a press conference last summer supporting the mayor's proposal to reform the city's sit-lie policy.
"I never got notice of the press conference. We have communications people who usually do this," Council member Karen Stratton said last year. "Who are these people, and what are they doing organizing a press conference with the mayor?"
The comically generic website for Town Square Strategies offers few insights. There's no hint of political intent, just a quote about genius misattributed to Albert Einstein and jargon about building "relationships with key audiences and stakeholders."
"That's what we want to know," Beggs says. "Who is paying Town Square?"
But Beggs' thinks the identity of the person who the consultants did manage to find to file the ethics complaint against him is notable: Tom Bassler, a retired pathologist. Bassler, Beggs says, is the son-in-law of Jerry Dicker — a passionate City Council critic and owner of the Steam Plant, Hotel Ruby and the Bing.
"Perhaps our business leaders will speak up and express their opposition to the self-serving policies of Beggs, Kinnear, Wilkerson, et al," Dicker wrote in an April email to other business owners about liberal council members.
But there are other contenders. Briefly, an anonymous user in the Google Docs press release had edited the draft to float a different last name to file the complaint: "Wendle."
While Cindy Wendle had used Strode as a consultant during her run for City Council president in 2019, by 2022 she got a divorce and changed her last name. She says it wasn't her.
But her ex-husband, Chud Wendle, has gone to considerable lengths to dig up dirt on the City Council. His 2021 records request for body camera footage of a police officer complaining about Council member Betsy Wilkerson's reluctance to hand over surveillance footage has continued to reverberate across the City Council and mayor's race, and called into question whether police Chief Craig Meidl shares privileged information to assist Wendle's political crusade.
Wendle also spent two years as McMorris Rodgers' district director.
In fact, the very same day that Strode began drafting the press releases, she and Chud Wendle were both at a City Council meeting, pushing back against council regulations that threatened to potentially delay the opening of the homeless shelter on Trent.
"I don't feel safe in my city," Strode said at the meeting, after signing in as a "citizen." Then Wendle spoke, accusing the council of trying "to micromanage the administration with reactive policies."
The Trent Shelter is owned by another Mayor Nadine Woodward supporter, developer Larry Stone. In 2021, Stone donated $50,000 to the Spokane Good Government Alliance, a PAC that's spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in opposition to progressive City Council members. (Today, the Spokane Good Government Alliance's president, John Estey, is also McMorris Rodgers' campaign director.)
Stone, Wendle, Dicker and Bassler have all been on an email list together for years, in which along with business owners like Sheldon Jackson, they have traded frustrations and lamentations about the state of homelessness and City Council leadership. In March of last year, a new name quietly began appearing on that list: Dawn Sugasa, the same one who runs Town Square Strategies.
Plenty of people on that list were furious about Stuckart — and ready to act on it.
"If you are not going to file an ethics complaint," Jackson wrote to the city attorney last April, "we will find someone that will."
It isn't, of course, just one side with a behind-the-scenes political machine chugging along to try to influence ostensibly nonpartisan politics. Bothell-based attorney Mark Lamb proved that while suing to get the City Council's recent redistricting decision overturned.
As Bell, McMorris Rodgers' deputy chief of staff, watched the live courtroom feed from afar, Lamb referred to the multiple messages he'd uncovered during discovery from Zappone, the council member who submitted his own map for redistricting.
In one message, Zappone was gloating about how the map he designed would give liberal council candidates a small but significant bump in a tight district. The recipient of that message: Jim Dawson, campaign director of the progressive Fuse Washington, which is part of the Democratic political machine.
And yet Lamb is a piece of the Republican machine. He's been an attorney for conservatives ranging from anti-tax crusader Tim Eyman to former state Rep. Matt Shea, who was accused of domestic terrorism by an investigator in 2019 due to his role in standoffs with federal officials.
For most of last year, Lamb was the registered agent for Town Square Strategies — all the legal mail went through him. During the same week that Strode and Bell were workshopping last year's ethics complaints against Stuckart and Beggs, Lamb fired off 13 different sprawling records requests, against progressive council members and staffers, scrutinizing years of emails for phrases like "Defund the Police" and "All Cops Are Bastards." After a year, the city sent over at least 25 gigabytes of records to Lamb and it's barely scratched the surface of everything he's asked for.
While Zappone's map survived Lamb's litigation, the material Lamb dug up during the lawsuit continues to make life difficult for the council members. Neil Muller, a local insurance salesman, has used that information to submit ethics complaints against Zappone, Wilkerson and both their legislative aides.
Muller says he was not "put up to do this by other people" but says he did get a little bit of help from other parties. But like Bassler a year ago, he says he doesn't want to say who assisted him.
"I don't think they want to be on record," Muller says. "This town is too small."
Zappone thinks Muller's push isn't a coincidence. "It seems like a coordinated effort to try to drag me through the mud," Zappone says.
Yet attorney Jeffry Finer, who defended the council's sustainability initiatives manager against an ethics complaint last year, argues that copycatting is sometimes to blame for what looks like coordination.
"I think folks in some circles have been passing along new wisdom as to how to shove a drumstick into the spokes of municipal machinery," says Finer.
Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner argues that wisdom is not even that new — he says it happened to Spokane Mayor David Condon nearly a decade ago.
"One of the main reasons that ethics complaints get filed is just to be a time suck in the middle of a campaign," Baumgartner says. "It can really take a lot of resources."
Bell and Sugasa know firsthand how grueling the process can be at the federal level: Both were put through the wringer in the 2010s by Congressional investigators when McMorris Rodgers was accused of improperly using government resources and staffers for political campaigns.
Though Bell's work on the ethics complaint press releases in May 2022 occurred on a Tuesday and Thursday morning, Bell insists in a text message that such efforts only occur during his personal time.
If it seems like a lot of the local Republican apparatus comes from Cathy-world, Baumgartner says that's because, on the state level, that's a main source of where Republican power comes from. And increasingly, the partisan battles unfold on municipal boards and councils, not just in Congress or Olympia.
"When I first ran for office, it seemed like all politics was local," says Baumgartner. "And now it very much is 'All politics is national.'"
Plenty of people lament the intrusion of partisan politics. Even Jennifer Thomas, a member of the redistricting commission who was as outraged as anyone by Zappone's redistricting map, has some misgivings about how calculated things can get behind the scenes.
Thomas says she was frustrated when she heard that Strode — along with the Spokane County GOP — were using phone banking to organize against Zappone's map.
"I didn't want there to be something on a non-political city issue that was so significant that could be characterized as game playing," Thomas says.
But it's hard to get away from politics. Thomas's face appeared on billboards in 2018, part of the "Cathy Represents Us" campaign. So did the face of Kim Plese, who's running for City Council president.
Yet Plese says she's sick of the "partisan politics that got in the way of being a public servant in my opinion. ... If this was a partisan position, I wouldn't be running right now."
She says some of her biggest support comes from frustrated business people, like hotelier and developer Dicker who picked up the phone to personally encourage her to run for council president.
She may get email lists and doorbelling strategies from Strode, she says, but that has nothing to do with partisan politics.
Underscoring the point, Plese puts "nonpartisan" on her campaign signs.
It's the same label that Condon used on his signs to get elected mayor in 2011 — right after working for six years as the deputy chief of staff for McMorris Rodgers. ♦