OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced that Google will pay $423,659.76 to Washington’s Public Disclosure Transparency Account for violating the state’s campaign finance disclosure law, which Washingtonians adopted by initiative in 1972.
Washington’s voter-approved Fair Campaign Practices Act requires political advertisers to retain records related to political ads because the public has a right to inspect the records, including the cost of the ad, the sponsor, and the person paying for the advertisement. Ferguson’s lawsuit followed Google’s failure to retain and disclose state political ad records.
This is the second time Ferguson has taken legal action against Google for violating Washington’s voter-approved law on political advertising. In June 2018, the Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit against Google for similar conduct. Ferguson’s 2018 lawsuit resulted in Google paying a $200,000 judgment and an additional $17,000 to reimburse the state’s attorney fees. This case involves approximately one-third the amount of ad expenditures as the 2018 lawsuit. In this case, Google is paying double that judgment amount, in addition to attorney fees.
“Google is one of the largest corporations in the world, and should be able to figure out how to follow our campaign finance laws,” Ferguson said. “Today’s judgment is twice as high as the one Google paid in 2018. Repeat violators of Washington’s voter-approved campaign transparency laws will be held accountable.”
“The Public Disclosure Commission appreciates the Attorney General’s Office efforts to defend the public’s right to know about political advertising,” Commission Chair Fred Jarrett said. “Our continued partnership in enforcing Washington state’s strong campaign finance laws ensures Washingtonians enjoy robust disclosure of political spending.”
Google is not the only tech giant facing a lawsuit over repeat campaign finance violations from the Attorney General’s Office. In April 2020, Ferguson filed a lawsuit against Facebook for similar, repeat conduct. That lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial on Dec. 6, 2021. In response to that lawsuit, Facebook is challenging the constitutionality of the commercial advertiser requirements of Washington’s voter-approved campaign finance law, which could put that law and the transparency it provides the public in jeopardy.
During Ferguson’s first lawsuit, Google announced a moratorium on political ads for Washington state and local elections. Ferguson never requested that Google stop selling political ads in Washington. Google’s voluntary policy was not required by the consent decree signed by the court when the case resolved.
Despite Google’s announced voluntary ban, Washington political ads continued to appear on Google advertising networks. Google hosted these ads without retaining and disclosing records regarding those ads, as required by law. From June 4, 2018, until the filing of the current case, 57 Washington candidates and political committees reported 188 payments related to ads on Google’s advertising networks — a total of $461,334.
When Washingtonians requested records related to those ads, Google failed to produce them. Two Washingtonians — Eli Sanders and Tallman Trask — complained that Google had failed to promptly respond to their requests about Washington political ads, as the law requires. Sanders requested information from Google about a Spokane public safety initiative. Trask sought information about Google ads relating to Seattle City Council races and other 2019 elections in Washington.
Both Sanders and Trask filed complaints with the Public Disclosure Commission. In September 2020, the Public Disclosure Commission referred the Google case to Ferguson. Due to legislation passed in 2018, the Washington Attorney General requires a referral from the Public Disclosure Commission in order to bring a campaign finance lawsuit. Ferguson announced his lawsuit in February of this year.
To resolve the lawsuit, Google will pay $400,000 to the state. In addition, Google will pay $23,659.76 in attorney fees to cover the costs of the case.
As part of today’s resolution, Google agreed that it did not comply with Washington campaign finance laws. Google still disputes whether the law applies to the multinational technology company.
The judgment has been filed and is awaiting formal approval by the judge.
Assistant Attorneys General Todd Sipe and Paul Crisalli handled the case for Washington.
Attorney General’s campaign finance litigation supports state transparency efforts
To date, the Attorney General’s campaign finance cases have garnered $8,261,605.04 in judgments and legally binding resolutions. By law, these judgments fund Washington’s Public Disclosure Transparency Account, which is the primary funding source for the voter-created Public Disclosure Commission.