The state’s Legislative Ethics Board has ruled against state Rep. Melanie Stambaugh, R-Puyallup, who chose to fight allegations that she violated state ethics rules by posting legislative videos and photos to Facebook.
In a ruling released Friday, the board said Stambaugh misused state resources for campaigning when she posted the videos and photos produced by legislative staff to a page that also included campaign materials.
The ethics rule Stambaugh violated is intended to maintain access to public records while blocking the use of state resources in campaigns, according to the board.
Stambaugh was found to have committed 44 violations for posting 19 videos and 25 photos in 2015 and 2016.
Help us deliver journalism that makes a difference in our community.
Our journalism takes a lot of time, effort, and hard work to produce. If you read and enjoy our journalism, please consider subscribing today.
While the maximum penalty for that number of violations would have been $220,000, the board instead fined Stambaugh $5,000, the maximum penalty for a single violation.
Reached Friday morning, Stambaugh said she plans to challenge the ethics board’s ruling.
She said the board’s decision serves to “inhibit direct communication between legislators and the public,” adding that the legislative materials in question were available for download on public-facing social media sites such as YouTube and Flickr.
“If any member of the public can use them, that also applies to legislators,” Stambaugh said. “This is about government information being shared with our constituents.”
Stambaugh’s case marked the first time a legislative ethics panel has held a hearing in Washington state in 22 years. During her December hearing, Stambaugh argued that board members were applying the state’s ethics law in a way that didn’t account for how people use modern technology.
Key to Stambaugh’s argument was the photos and videos in question were already posted on social media sites geared toward sharing those types of materials. She argued that restricting her use of the photos and videos violates her free speech rights and subverts the state’s Public Records Act.
Puyallup State Representative Melanie Stambaugh welcomes the chance to defend herself against charges that she violated legislative ethics rules by posting state-funded photos and videos to the Facebook page she used during her campaign.
The board rejected those arguments, saying Stambaugh’s logic would “allow legislators to direct the production of any number of taxpayer-funded videos and photos which could be used on campaign websites and social media platforms without restriction.”
“Such a misuse of public resources would be inconsistent with the broad policy reflected in the ethics act and would enhance the power of incumbency in legislative campaigns,” said the ruling released Friday, which was dated Feb. 14.
Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune
The board reiterated its previous stance that Stambaugh’s posting of legislative videos to Facebook would have been proper had she linked to the original legislative source website, rather than embedding them directly on Facebook.
The board has stated lawmakers can link to legislative materials from campaign sites, but they cannot post or embed those materials in a way that allows them to be viewed without leaving the campaign page.
The board faulted Stambaugh for not purchasing the state-produced photos that she posted on the site, as most lawmakers do when they want to use official photos in their campaigns.
Stambaugh has 10 days to ask the board to reconsider its ruling. She has 30 days to decide whether she wants to appeal the board’s final order in Superior Court.
She said Friday she is still weighing which approach she will take.
If she doesn’t challenge the decision, Stambaugh is expected to pay the $5,000 fine within 90 days.