Washington State Accuses Google of Campaign Finance Violations

Google said it wouldn’t run political ads in Washington state after it agreed to settle claims that it violated campaign finance laws. Then dozens more candidates and political committees reported paying Google for political ads.

This image taken from the exhibits in a lawsuit Washington state filed against Google purportedly shows a political ad published by Google.

(CN) — Google didn’t keep records of who paid for political ads in Washington state even after paying over $200,000 in 2018 to settle identical claims, according to a new lawsuit filed Wednesday by the state attorney general.

Washington state law requires publishers to keep records of who bought the political ads they run, and to make that information available within 24 hours of publishing to anyone requesting it. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued Google in 2018, claiming the company didn’t maintain or make publicly available information on who paid for the political ads it ran, in violation of Washington’s Fair Campaign Practices Act. That December, Google agreed to pay $217,000 to settle those claims.

The company also announced it would no longer run political ads for state or local elections in Washington state — a voluntary move not required under the settlement. But since then, 57 candidates and political committees have filed campaign disclosure reports detailing 188 payments totaling over $460,000 to Google’s advertising networks, according to the latest lawsuit.

Some of those ads targeted Seattle or Spokane City Council elections, while others were aimed at candidates for the Legislature. Those are the ads the state knows about from reports filed by those who bought the ads. But because Google didn’t keep adequate records, there are likely more that advertisers didn’t report — whether from dark money sources or “noncompliant campaigns,” the lawsuit says.

Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission launched an investigation after two people complained Google refused to hand over required information on various political ads. During its investigation, Google told the commission on five occasions that it did not possess information about who had paid for its political ads, such as the date of payment or the name of the person making the payment, according to the complaint.

And in a June 2019 letter to the commission, Google said it does not collect all the information Washington laws requires and noted it had recognized that discrepancy in 2018 when it announced it would no longer run political ads in the Evergreen State.

Google’s failure to keep such records also violated its own terms of service, the lawsuit states.

Washington wants a King County Superior Court judge to require Google to comply with state law and make records of all political ads in the state available for public review. It also requested treble damages in the event the court finds Google intentionally violated state campaign finance disclosure laws.

S. Todd Sipe and Paul Crisalli with the Attorney General’s Office in Seattle filed the lawsuit.

“I take repeat violations of our campaign finance laws very seriously,” Ferguson said in a statement. “Google is one of the largest corporations in the world, and should be able to figure out how to follow our campaign finance laws. Washingtonians demanded transparency in their elections. My office will honor the will of the people and continue enforcing the law to ensure our elections are fair and transparent.”

But Google claims any political ads it has run in Washington state are inadvertent.

“We don’t accept Washington state election ads,” Google spokeswoman Charlotte Smith said via email. “Advertisers that submit these ads are violating our policies and we take measures to block such ads and remove violating ads when we find them. We have been working cooperatively with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission on these issues and look forward to defending this litigation.”

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