Seattle police investigating democracy voucher allegation

KING 5's Natalie Brand reports.

The Seattle Police Department is investigating a case of alleged fraud involving the city's democracy vouchers, a first of its kind program aimed at reducing the influence of big money in local politics.

No charges have been filed, but a police spokesperson confirms an active investigation is underway.

Police are not naming the individual under investigation, but The Seattle Times, which broke the story, reports the investigation involves at large council candidate Sheley Secrest.

Her campaign confirms an allegation was made by a former campaign manager who told elections officials that Secrest used some of her own money, instead of obtaining contributions from supporters, to try to qualify to receive vouchers.

The program requires an at large candidate to collect 400 signatures and corresponding small dollar contributions to qualify. Secrest did not end up qualifying for the program, nor did she win one of the top two spots in the August 1 primary.

Secrest has denied the allegations and told The Seattle Times that the claim was a fabrication by a disgruntled employee.

KING 5 has reached out to Secrest for comment but has not heard back, as of our deadline.

Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program, now in its first year after being passed by voters in 2015, drew criticism from some who worried it could be ripe for abuse.

“I would say the program is working because if there are allegations of wrongdoing, they’re going to be investigated and met with appropriate penalties,” said Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission cannot comment on ongoing investigations. However, Barnett stresses that integrity is always a top concern for his agency and points to safeguards in place to protect against fraud, as well as penalties for anyone caught and convicted of violations.

“Any time you have a pot of public money, there needs to be efforts to safeguard that. I think we’ve put the systems in place here in Seattle to make sure that if there are attempts to defraud the program, we will catch them,” said Barnett.

Crimes include trafficking democracy vouchers, theft, forgery or falsifying information, according to Seattle code on Democracy Voucher program.

It's unknown what charges could potentially apply to the case currently under investigation. 

Ahead of the general election, five candidates are currently participating in the in the program, according to the SEEC website. 

While supporters of the program, including position 8 candidate Jon Grant, have praised the new campaign finance option, other candidates have said it didn't work out as intended. 

Related: Money raised through vouchers ahead of primary

At large council candidate Hisam Goueli, who didn't make it through the primary, told KUOW that the program doesn’t reward first time candidates who don’t have the backing of large political organizations. 

Barnett says SEEC and the City of Seattle will evaluate how the program worked following the 2017 election season to assess whether it needs any adjustments. However, he stresses that the current qualifying measures are in place for a reason.

“I think it is important to keep in mind that this program was not intended to be easy to qualify for,” said Barnett. “The 400 signatures and 400 qualifying contributions…those were to be collected by people who wanted to represent the city at large. We really have about 500,000 people eligible to make those qualifying contributions, so not sure whether or not 400 is a barrier to someone who would be looking to represent the city at large. "

© 2017 KING-TV


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