The Seattle Ethics and Election Commission (SEEC) on Tuesday ruled that a proposal to create a legal defense fund with anonymous donors for Mayor Murray in his child sex abuse lawsuit doesn't comply with the city's ethics rules.
In a letter to the seven-person commission, lawyers who sought to establish the legal defense fund argued that keeping contributions anonymous would guard against corruption "because an official cannot give favors to someone who is unknown to him." Attorneys Paul Lawrence and Taki Flevaris of Pacifica Law Group characterized the child sex abuse lawsuit against Murray as "politically charged," and wrote that an "effective defense" could cost $1 million or more. State and local laws, they wrote, don't address legal defense funds specifically.
In the same letter, Lawrence and Flevaris proposed the fund be kept by trustee Martha Choe, the former chief administrative officer at the Gates Foundation and Seattle City Council member who once mentored Murray when he served as her aide.
In their decision to turn down the proposal, ethics commissioners cited the suggestion of anonymous donations, as well as silence in the law on legal defense funds. SEEC chair Eileen Norton said she wasn't willing to create a mechanism "on the fly" for a legal defense fund where none previously existed.
"We're being asked to approve of a mechanism to allow an elected official to solicit unlimited acts of money from anonymous donors," Norton said. "There is no manner in which that fits in the city and the state's attitudes toward transparency, accountability and disclosure."
"I think there needs to be a statutory structure in which legal defense funds are permitted," Norton continued. "We don't have that."
Flevaris, who is also helping represent the city in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU against the city's practice of sweeping homeless encampments, stressed that Murray's legal fund would be willing to try an alternate method to raise money in a way that would comply with ethics rules.
He asked: "How can citizens not ensure that a public official has the resources to defend himself?"
Wayne Barnett, executive director of the SEEC, also noted that New York City had recently passed regulations on legal defense funds prohibiting public officials from accepting more than $50 from anyone who has or wants to do business with the city.
After a brief executive session among SEEC commissioners, Norton proposed a motion that Barnett draft an advisory opinion saying that the current proposal doesn't comply with ethics rules, and that there is no regulatory structure allowing the commission to create rules for legal defense funds. Commissioners approved the motion, and Barnett said he'd issue the written opinion shortly.
Flevaris, one of the lawyers for the fund, said he and his colleagues would be analyzing the SEEC's decision before taking next steps.
An April 6 Seattle Times story first broke news of the child sex abuse lawsuit against Murray, later revealed to have been brought by a 46-year-old gay man named Delvonn Heckard. The original story also included two other claims of child sex abuse going back as far as 2007, when Murray's former foster child, Jeff Simpson, attempted to bring a similar suit. Simpson's lawyer at the time dropped the case because, as he later explained to The Stranger, he was concerned it didn't fall within Oregon's statute of limitations for civil child sex abuse lawsuits. In that lawsuit, however, a third man and childhood friend of Simpson's while both lived at the youth center where Murray once worked also alleged that Murray had paid him for sexual favors as an underage teen. A fourth accuser, Maurice Lavon Jones, surfaced two weeks ago to write a declaration in the current case stating that he too had been paid for sex by Murray—though it's unclear whether Jones meant that he was allegedly paid for sex as a teen below Washington's age of consent, 16.
Murray and his surrogates have denied the allegations against him, labeling his accusers as politically motivated, untrustworthy, or troubled. Last week, Murray announced that he would not be running for re-election in the midst of the lawsuit.