Ex-Des Moines mayor fined $2,500

Discussion:

PDC bars Wasson from seeking office over plot to pack council

OLYMPIA — Former Des Moines Mayor Don Wasson has been ordered to pay $2,500 in fines by the state Public Disclosure Commission and instructed never to run for public office again or face even more damages.

“He developed a scheme, and it worked,” PDC Chairman Mike Connelly said. “It was just a cost of doing business.”

The PDC contends that Wasson worked with businessman Hank Hopkins to conceal $49,000 in campaign contributions to elect three new council members in 2001 who would, in turn, elect him mayor. It was also alleged that Hopkins gave the money to Wasson so a new Des Moines City Council would support a measure for a third runway at Sea-Tac Airport on the northern edge of Des Moines. One of Hopkins’ companies could significantly benefit from the third-runway project.

The commission fined Hopkins’ companies $40,000 and has sent the matter to the state Attorney General’s Office to determine if criminal action is warranted.

At yesterday’s commission meeting, staff members reported that Hopkins’ companies, TME Capital Group and Environmental Material Transport, had tried illegally to influence another Des Moines City Council election. Connelly said Hopkins intentionally concealed the information.

According to PDC staff reports, during the 1999 Des Moines elections, $4,600 was appropriated illegally from TME.

Staff reports said TME investor Cathy Boshaw asked close friend Denis Bryant to contribute $4,000 to two challengers in the City Council election. Boshaw then reimbursed Bryant for the contribution. In October 1999, Boshaw also had business associate Ginger Marshall contribute $350 to a candidate and later reimbursed Marshall $450 for the favor.

Another TME investor, Elling Halvorson, had employee Gary Collett write a $250 check for a candidate and after the election reimbursed him using his company’s money as a business expense. Both investors told the PDC they were unaware of the law.

“The fact they didn’t know is hardly an excuse,” Connelly said.

The PDC believes that the investors were working under the direct authority of Hopkins and that the contributions were made under names not known to the candidates for fear of “tainting” them or creating a bias against the candidates. The candidates, Mike Foote Jr. and Marty Michaelson, did not win their races. The same maneuvering was used successfully in the 2001 election, the PDC said, with Wasson as the intermediary.

“Some of these names I have known and respected,” PDC member Earl Tilly said. This “made me sick.”

The PDC found that Wasson used $20,000 from Hopkins to run the election campaigns of three challengers that held similar pro-business beliefs. Wasson was appointed mayor after the three candidates were elected.

Hopkins spent an additional $29,000 for a telephone survey to determine community opinion on a third runway and about four council candidates.

The money and in-kind contributions were never reported.

Gary Petersen, Richard Benjamin, and Margaret Steenrod were elected to the council as a direct result of the financial contributions. Steenrod was appointed mayor after Wasson stepped down from the ceremonial post in January. He resigned from the council two weeks ago.

The candidates claimed that they had no idea a campaign was being run to benefit them, and the PDC could find no proof to the contrary.

“You’re telling me the candidates didn’t know a $20,000 campaign was being conducted on their behalf?” Connelly countered. “As a prior candidate, I find that hard to believe.”

The PDC dismissed charges against Steenrod and Foote, who lost his bid for the council. But the PDC delayed ruling on whether Petersen or Benjamin committed any wrongdoing.

An attorney for Hopkins said the entire matter is Wasson’s fault for not filing proper paperwork to become a political committee. “My client did nothing but write the checks,” attorney Jim Frush said. “It was Wasson’s responsibility to file the paperwork.”

Wasson, 76, who served on the City Council for 12 years, was fined $2,500, with an additional $7,500 that could be levied if Wasson ever runs for public office or helps a candidate solicit money.