After Unemployment Fraud, Washington’s Campaign Finance Watchdog Blocks Some Online Access

The Washington Public Disclosure Commission website is where candidates file and the general public can see campaign expenditure reports.
The Washington Public Disclosure Commission website is where candidates file and the general public can see campaign expenditure reports.

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Updated May 28, 2020, 11:10 p.m. PT

At the request of a powerful Democratic state senator who warned of “foreign intrusion,” Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) on Sunday temporarily suspended public, online access to the personal financial statements of elected officials, candidates and other public officials.

The F-1 statements, as they’re known, include information about an individual’s income, assets, property holdings, debt and business associations. They do not, however, include bank account or social security numbers. The F-1 is designed to allow the public to determine if candidates for public office, as well as state and local elected officials and high-level government appointees, have potential conflicts of interest. 

The unusual and abrupt decision to block online access to the F-1 reports came after state Sen. Sam Hunt, the Democratic chair of the Senate’s State Government, Tribal Relations and Elections Committee, which has jurisdiction over the PDC, sent an urgent email Sunday to the agency’s Executive Director Peter Lavallee with the subject line “Stop online posting of F1 data.”

In his email, Hunt relayed that fellow Democratic state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, chair of the Senate’s Environment, Energy and Technology Committee, and Jim Weaver, the state’s Chief Information Officer, had both warned that “PDC is being assaulted by international data thieves from China, Russia, and Germany.”

Washington State Sen. Sam Hunt

After Democratic state Sen. Sam Hunt sent an email to Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission over the weekend, the watchdog agency temporarily blocked public online access to financial disclosure statements. CREDIT: Washington Legislature

Weaver’s agency, Washington Technology Solutions (WaTech), said Tuesday evening that it had seen no evidence of a breach or compromise of data on the PDC website. But in an email, a WaTech spokesperson said the agency was recommending the PDC continue to disable online access to F-1 reports out of a concern that “threat actors” could use the information to “create fraudulent accounts to access benefits.”

Earlier Tuesday, Carlyle confirmed his high level of concern that F-1 information could be used to create a “financial profile” of an individual, which in turn could be used to commit identity theft or fraud.

“The PDC is not inherently doing anything wrong; it’s a policy question of whether or not that level of information should be distributed on the open internet at a time like this,” Carlyle said.

No Concrete Evidence

Hunt’s email to the PDC, a copy of which the Northwest News Network obtained, offered no concrete evidence of a threat. But it came on the heels of reports last week that a Nigerian-based criminal syndicate was suspected of defrauding Washington’s beleaguered unemployment system to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

“At present, it appears that we are sitting ducks and could be the next big news story,” Hunt wrote in his email.

Fifteen minutes after Hunt sent his email, Lavallee, the PDC’s executive director, responded and promised to seek “immediate input” from the PDC’s Commissioners, but added that state cybersecurity officials had “conveyed to me a much lower level of potential threat and urgency.”

Minutes later, Hunt emailed Lavallee back with an even more insistent message.

“This is not a ‘lower level of potential threat and urgency,’” Hunt wrote. “The commission needs to take a hard look and ‘grab [the] bull by the horns.’ Now.”

A little more than an hour after that, Lavallee wrote Hunt to say he had consulted with PDC Chair David Ammons and that online access to F-1 statements was being suspended, according to the email chain reviewed by the Northwest News Network.

A PDC spokesperson, Kim Bradford, said Tuesday the decision over the holiday weekend was made “out of an abundance of caution so that we could hear what the concerns might be.”

On Thursday, at its regularly scheduled meeting, the Commission