The Campaign for Nickels’ Waterfront Tunnel Took In Checks That Were Too Big and Past Deadline

Who was seeking them?

A last-minute gusher of more than $250,000 in contributions to the waterfront-tunnel political campaign this year included two hefty checks that arrived in violation of the city's election code, City Hall investigators have found. The checks—$7,500 from Seattle land baron Al Clise and $20,000 from Seattle developer Greg Smith—both arrived past a deadline and, oddly, investigators noticed, were somehow received by the campaign four to five days before they were written.

At least that's what the Not Another Elevated Viaduct committee reported on its confusing public disclosure records—stating Clise's check arrived at the group's Eastlake Avenue East headquarters on Feb. 16 and that Smith's check came in on Feb. 17. They thus would have cleared a Feb. 19 legal cutoff for donations greater than $5,000. But, in a subsequent review of other records, Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission auditor Polly Grow discovered that both checks had been written and received on Feb. 20.

Admitting to wrongly accepting the late donations and to mishandling checks, the campaign last week paid a modest $1,250 fine for violating the city election code. Campaign officials told the SEEC the problem was part clerical error and part confusion over the cutoff date, which is 21 days before an election. But they couldn't quite explain how it all happened.

Also somewhat mysterious was what role, if any, the mayor's office might have had in the late-arriving checks. According toSEEC records, Clise told an investigator that "someone" from Mayor Greg Nickels' office had asked him to make the contribution. Seattle Downtown Association President Kate Joncas, who was calling around for deadline donations,told either Clise or Smith that "he [the mayor] needed $20,000" from one of them, according to notes by the SEEC investigator, Harley Anders.

If so, that, too, "would be a violation, if someone was directing a political campaign from City Hall," says SEEC Executive Director Wayne Barnett. The mayor's office denies such involvement, and the SEEC felt anydeep sleuthing into the mayor's participation would lead to a dead end. "I just didn't think Al Clise's comment was going to yield any evidence that it [such a directive] came from within City Hall. At best, it would be 'he said, he said,'" Barnett says. Joncas' remark was vague as well, he felt. Investigator Anders wouldn't elaborate to Seattle Weekly, saying his "notes speak for themselves."

Joncas didn't respond to the Weekly's requests for comment. The amiable Clise says he can't remember who, exactly, asked him to donate or where the requester was from. "That was months ago, and we get lots of requests for donations," he says. "I kinda chuckled when they [the SEEC] called me up and asked me about it. I thought it was much ado about nothing."

The mayor's office, says spokesperson Marty McOmber, "was not involved in raising money for the campaign. Some members of the staff did voluntary work in conjunction with the campaign, but on their own personal time and not in any official capacity."

A member of the tunnel campaign staff, asking not to be quoted by name, says Clise or Joncas may have been referring to the campaign staff, not the mayor's staff, because the mayor has relied on some of the same people in both his election campaigns and the waterfront campaign.

"Not Another Elevated" campaign treasurerJason Bennett—who would not comment on the SEEC violation—was a paid staffer on the mayor's 2005 re-election team. Colby Underwood, fund-raiser for the sister organization, Friends for a Better Waterfront, has been responsible for tapping contributors to the mayor's first two election runs as well as his 2009 re-election bid. Since Nickels was first elected mayor in 2001, Underwood and his firm have raised the bulk of a cumulative $1.8 million donated to the mayor's elections and waterfront-tunnel campaign. That includes more than $100,000 given over six years to the mayor's little-known office fund, used by Nickels to pay office-related expenses, such as gifts and food, and for travel expenses for himself and his wife. Records show Underwood taps many of the same deep-pockets donors to contribute to all the various causes.

Among the fund-raising drives, however, it's the tunnel effort that stands out. From Feb. 15 to 20—in what the unnamed campaign staffer describes as "a deluge of money"—the anti-viaduct campaign received or deposited 70 checks worth $252,740. Friends for a Better Waterfront handled another $45,505 during the same period. Those donations account for almost half of the $565,000 raised by the two committees during the mayor'syearlong effort to sell Seattle on a Big Dig

Campaign officials were eventually forced to return $2,500 to Clise and $15,000 to Smith, paring their contributions back to the legal limit. The Clise check and an on-time donation for $7,000 from Port Blakely Tree Farm had also been deposited in the wrong campaign account, the SEEC found. The campaign agreed to pay a $1,000 fine for accepting the late checks and $250 for making "misdirected" deposits. Gene Hoglund, who helped head up an opposing campaign, the No Tunnel Alliance, says, "In my view, they were moving money around, and taking it, when they knew it was illegal."

The waterfront campaign made its biggest stumble at the polls, however. Voters, asked in the March 13 advisory balloting if they wanted the viaduct torn down and replaced with a tunnel, or torn down and rebuilt, soundly rejected both options. The mayor and City Council are now back at the drawing board.

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