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Published: Tuesday, December 13, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

Pooh-poohing Reardon's cell phone problems ignores state law

We knew there would be some pushback when we wrote about public records detailing how Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon apparently used a government-issued cell phone for hundreds of calls this year with key members of his successful re-election campaign.

The stories, here and here, were greeted by anonymous online comments suggesting we were being petty. By Friday, there was a letter to the editor from an Everett reader who dismissed close examination of Reardon's phone habits as "total nonsense" unworthy of attention.

In other words: Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

We get that sort of reaction a fair bit when we write unflattering things about Reardon, a popular Democrat poised to start his third term in the county's top job. Still, to dismiss the evidence found in the county executive's phone records ignores context -- and state campaign law.

We examined Reardon's phone bills because they were compiled as part of an ongoing Washington State Patrol criminal investigation. As we've been reporting since Nov. 3, detectives are trying to determine whether he engaged in official misconduct involving public funds. The investigation was launched in late October after a female county employee alleged she accompanied Reardon on what he described as county business but she claims actually were opportunities for hotel-room trysts.

The county phone bills for 2011 show two long calls between cell phones used by Reardon and the woman. She says there are more. She's yet to sit with us for a formal interview. She has been talking with detectives.

Reardon has denied wrongdoing. He also has refused to answer our repeated, direct questions about the woman and her claims.

We expect the State Patrol investigation could take a while. Meanwhile, more Reardon records will become public. The cell phone billings, which covered about 10,000 Reardon communications this year alone, were obtained by us and others under public records laws after the county sent them to detectives.

We wrote about Reardon's use of his county cell phone because of what the data showed. Our analysis found more than 800 phone calls and roughly 1,200 text messages this year between the county phone Reardon carries and the core people in his re-election campaign. Those folks included his campaign manager, his paid political consultant, his fundraiser and his campaign media expert. Also in the mix were more than 175 calls between Reardon's county-issued phone and the phone number listed on election disclosure forms as the official point of contact for his campaign.

All told, the calls linked to Reardon's campaign totaled nearly 55 hours, or 3,265 minutes, of talking time. With text messages included, the campaign-related contacts constituted 20 percent of all the times Reardon's government cell phone was used to communicate from January through early November, data show.

Yes, it appears Reardon made many of those calls when he wouldn't be expected at the office. The reverse is true, too. The data list 27 hours of calls to Reardon campaign members on work days during normal business hours (8 a.m. to noon; 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.).

So far this year, the county was billed more than $1,700 to provide Reardon with cell phone service. Even if there was some arrangement under which Reardon or his campaign paid his county phone bills (and nobody has suggested to us that is the case) the questions don't go away.

State law prohibits using public resources in political campaigns. Those who ignore the rules can face steep civil fines.

Lawyers we consulted said the relevant law is RCW 42.17.130. It says in part: "No elective official nor any employee of his [or her] office nor any person appointed to or employed by any public office or agency may use or authorize the use of any of the facilities of a public office or agency, directly or indirectly, for the purpose of assisting a campaign for election of any person to any office or for the promotion of or opposition to any ballot proposition."

The law goes on to make clear the prohibition extends to equipment, office space, vehicles, employees' time -- anything typically paid for with public funds.

And yes, that list includes government phones. Election watchdogs at the state Public Disclosure Commission make that clear in their tip sheet for running lawful campaigns.

These rules aren't arcane political secrets. The Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington posts detailed guidelines. State courts have gigged teachers for using school email to arrange campaign activity. As early as 1999, the state auditor spanked a fire commissioner for using his cell phone for what was described as potential campaign activity.

Complaints about apparent violations of RCW 42.17.130 also make up a good part of the caseload for state election regulators. The investigations often focus on complaints about candidates using public resources in political advertising -- say an image of a city fire truck, or somebody posing in a police uniform.

Indeed, Reardon's election opponent this year, state Rep. Mike Hope, R-Lake Stevens, was the focus of just such a complaint. Remember? That complaint against Hope, which was dismissed, triggered an election season flap after a home address associated with Reardon staffer Kevin Hulten somehow wound up being used as a mailing address for a Seattle man who says he complained.

Reardon repeatedly has told us, without equivocation, that no public resources were used in his re-election efforts. He did that most recently the afternoon his cell phone bills were made public. Reardon stopped responding to our calls and emails, however, when we brought him questions based on what the bills appear to document. To our knowledge, he's yet to challenge what we've reported regarding his cell phone use.

Meanwhile, our questions remain. We'll let you know if Reardon calls with answers.

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