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How the car-tab controversy led to an investigation of Sound Transit

A Senate investigation into Sound Transit prompted some strong reactions among state lawmakers both for and against the idea.

A state Senate committee announced Monday it’s panel will investigate Sound Transit for allegedly misleading the public about the impact of Sound Transit 3 and its tax package.

State Sens. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, and Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, called for an investigation last week, claiming Sound Transit tried to use an outdated method to calculate car-tab fees, was unclear about how long the project was authorized, and meddled in the ST3 ballot initiative.

Sound Transit said Tuesday their focus is on expanding light rail throughout the region. A spokesperson said the agency won't be distracted by claims being made by Republican lawmakers - claims that according to Sound Transit have "no validity."

On Tuesday, KING 5 asked O'Ban whether the investigation would still be taking place had it not been for the controversy over increased car-tab fees that exploded over the last few months.

"The two issues are very related," said O'Ban. "Frankly, people have contacted me, because they've seen my interest in Sound Transit, and I've come into possession of information that is deeply concerning."

Meanwhile, Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said she feels the investigation is a waste of both time and money.

"It seems to me the Republicans are grasping at straws to make their case, and they have no case," said Clibborn.

But O'Ban strongly disagreed and said it's the role of the legislature to hold Sound Transit accountable.

"We have some very deep concerns about the way Sound Transit conducted themselves as a run up to the campaign, misleading both voters and lawmakers, and I think playing fast and loose with the campaign finance laws that prevent government agencies like Sound Transit from using taxpayer money to support a campaign, in this case, ST3," said O'Ban.

State Sen. Mike Padden, chair of the Law and Justice Committee, approved the investigation in a letter, saying the allegations against Sound Transit were “serious and merit further consideration.”

“Any time a state agency is alleged to have acted or failed to act in a way that harms the public, the legislature should step in to carefully consider the matter,” wrote Padden, R-Spokane Valley.

Sound Transit denied Rossi and O’Ban’s allegations last week, saying the organization was transparent about the cost and impact throughout the campaign process and followed all campaign rules.

Voters approved the $54 billion ST3 tax package last fall. Tax increases will pay to expand mass transit in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties with a range of light rail, commuter rail, and bus connections.

Related: Complete car-tab controversy coverage

In pushing for an investigation of Sound Transit, Rossi and O'Ban cited "public comments" that House Transportation Committee Chair Clibborn made to the press. They say Clibborn reportedly said lawmakers might not have signed off on the ST3 proposal in 2015 if they knew it was for a transit package totaling $54 billion, since Sound Transit had only requested authorization for $15 billion during public testimony.

O'Ban said Clibborn's statement is "proof that tough questions need to be asked."

But Clibborn said her comment was being taken out of context.

"They can quote things I may have said to the press all they want, but I'm not anti-Sound Transit and I never will be," said Clibborn. "This investigation, to me, is the Republicans' effort to take down Sound Transit, and I have no interest in helping them with that."

Clibborn also said that rather than investigate Sound Transit, she'd rather spend the time working on a bipartisan solution that will provide taxpayers relief from pricey car-tabs.

Does she think Sound Transit misled lawmakers and the public?

"No. I think that is the most implausible part of this whole thing, is that the Republicans are saying Sound Transit misled the public," Clibborn said. "The public always knew this was a $54 billion package."

O'Ban believes taxpayers were misled in more ways than one.

"Sound Transit went to taxpayers and said, hey, this is only going to cost the average taxpayer about $169 a year, total.That's for the car-tab tax, the increase in sales tax, and the new property tax. They said the total that would be paid would be about $169. My goodness, I've gotten calls and emails from a number of people who are paying more than $169 just for one car," he said.

In their request, O’Ban and Rossi asked either the Senate Transportation Committee or the Law and Justice Committee to hold hearings on Sound Transit.

Rossi and O’Ban appealed to Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson earlier this year, asking Ferguson to investigate Sound Transit for using an outdated method to calculate car-tab taxes. The attorney general’s office decided not to investigate.