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Peacock v. Public Disclosure Commission

December 6, 1996


Appeal from Superior Court of Thurston County. Docket No: 94-2-01538-6. Date filed: 05/19/95. Judge signing: Hon. Wm. T. McPhee.

Petition for Review Denied May 6, 1997,

Authored by Carroll C. Bridgewater. Concurring: David H. Armstrong, Karen G. Seinfeld.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bridgewater

BRIDGEWATER, J. -- Richard Peacock appeals from a superior court decision affirming the Public Disclosure Commission's (PDC) declaratory order that his Cedar County Committee is a "grass roots lobbying campaign" that must comply with the PDC's registration and reporting requirements.

We hold that the Committee's effort to distribute informational brochures and to gather signatures to create a new county from a part of King County is intended primarily to influence legislation and, as such, is a "grass roots lobbying campaign" subject to the PDC's disclosure requirements. We affirm.

Richard Peacock is vice-president of the Cedar County Committee, a nonprofit corporation formed for the purpose of creating a new county, Cedar County, out of a portion of King County. In order to reach this goal, the Committee began a petition drive to gather signatures from registered voters in the subject area. *fn1 If enough signatures are obtained, the Committee will present the signed petitions to the Secretary of State, who will in turn present them to the Legislature to draft the legislation that will create the new county.

In February 1994, the Public Disclosure Commission notified the Committee that its effort to promote the creation of a new county was a "grass roots lobbying campaign" under RCW 42.17.200, and that it was therefore required to register and report under Chapter 42.17 RCW if it exceeded the monetary threshold set forth in that statute. That statute provides, in pertinent part, the following:

(1) Any person who has made expenditures, not reported by a registered lobbyist under RCW 42.17.170 or by a candidate or political committee under RCW 42.17.065 or 42.17.080, exceeding five hundred dollars in the aggregate within any three-month period or exceeding two hundred dollars in the aggregate within any one-month period in presenting a program addressed to the public, a substantial portion of which is intended, designed, or calculated primarily to influence legislation shall be required to register and report, as provided in subsection (2) of this section, as a sponsor of a grass roots lobbying campaign. RCW 42.17.200 (emphasis added).

On appeal, Peacock challenges the PDC's interpretation and application of that statute. He contends that his Committee is not a grass roots lobbying campaign because its efforts are not addressed to the public and are not intended primarily to influence legislation. The formation of a new county, he argues, is a ministerial task triggered by the requisite number of signatures, a process without Legislative discretion and therefore incapable of being influenced. He also argues that his Committee cannot be impacting legislation because there is no proposed or pending legislation that specifically regards the new county.

When reviewing agency orders in adjudicative proceedings, the appellate court applies the standards of the Washington Administrative Procedure Act directly to the record that was before the agency. *fn2 "On issues of law, we apply the error of law standard of review, permitting us to substitute our judgment for that of the administrative body; however, we accord substantial weight to the agency's view of the law it administers." *fn3 When the agency has expertise in a specialized field of law and has quasi-judicial functions in that field, we accord substantial weight to its construction of statutory words, phrases and legislative intent. *fn4 The party asserting that an agency's order is invalid has the burden of demonstrating its invalidity. *fn5 Only if this court determines that the appellant has been substantially prejudiced by the agency's action may we grant relief. *fn6 Our primary objective in interpreting a statute is to ascertain and give effect to the Legislature's intent as manifested in the statute's express language. *fn7 Legislative intent is derived from the statutory context as a whole. *fn8 Accordingly, we interpret RCW 42.17.200 in light of that chapter's purpose, which is to inform the public and its elected representatives about "sponsors of campaigns and lobbying efforts which seek to affect, directly or indirectly, governmental decision making." *fn9 We also consider the Public Disclosure Act's declaration of policy, which states the following:

The provisions of this chapter shall be liberally construed to promote complete disclosure of all information respecting the financing of political campaigns and lobbying, and . . . full access to public records so as to assure continuing public confidence of fairness of elections and governmental processes, and so as to assure that the public interest will be fully protected.

RCW 42.17.010(11) (emphasis added).

The statute at issue, RCW 42.17.200, dictates that a person is a sponsor of a grass roots lobbying campaign if: (1) the program presented is addressed to the public, and (2) a substantial portion of the ...

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