Conner Edwards, 25, at the Seattle offices of Facebook last week. Hes made the same type of disclosure request The Stranger made last year. He
Conner Edwards, 25, at the Seattle offices of Facebook, where last week he made the same type of political ad disclosure request The Stranger made last year. Edwards is unsatisfied with Facebook's response and has filed a complaint with the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission. Courtesy Conner Edwards

Conner Edwards is an interesting character. After growing up in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood and graduating from the ultra-liberal Evergreen State College, he became a legislative aide to wildcard Republican State Senator Pam Roach (whose history includes being banned from the Senate Republican caucus over allegations of mistreating her staff).

"If you want to have a fun time," Edwards, 25, told me by phone last week, "Google ‘Pam Roach and Conner Edwards and FBI…'”

So I did.

I quickly found a Seattle Times story from last summer headlined: "Sen. Pam Roach’s fundraising, expenses and a meeting at Applebee’s draw FBI scrutiny." Edwards shows up in that story as a whistleblower who, at the time, had become "the latest person to accuse [Roach] of misbehavior."

But this colorful history is not what Edwards most wanted to talk to me about.

These days he's an aspiring law student and a self-described political disclosure geek. “Public disclosure, man. Campaign finance. I love this stuff!" Edwards told me. "It’s boring to most people, but that’s why I have to make a stand, because no one’s looking into it.”

That last claim depends on your definition of no one.

Edwards told me he's been closely following my attempts to use a unique law from the 1970s to force Facebook, Google, and Pandora to disclose data on political ads the companies sold targeting Seattle's 2017 municipal elections. (The latest on all that is here, here, and here.)

Last week, Edwards did what I did last year. He showed up at the Seattle offices of Facebook and Google with a copy of a state law that—just like Seattle law—requires any company selling political ads aimed at local elections to disclose, upon request, the "exact nature and extent" of the advertising services provided, as well as information on each political ad's cost and purchaser.

What Edwards found is that to this day, neither Facebook nor Google are following the requirement that digital platforms "maintain documents and books of account that shall be open for public inspection during normal business hours"—documents and books of account that, according to the law, must convey the required political ad information to anyone who asks.

This didn't surprise Edwards.

Days before he showed up at Facebook and Google, he'd filed complaints against both tech giants with the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission. (You can see his complaint against Facebook here and his complaint against Google here.)

I'd never heard of Edwards until he told me about all this, but his complaints argue that the failure by both companies to "maintain documents and books of account" concerning local political ads "has been professionally documented and exposed."

He goes on to cite more than 20 Stranger pieces I've written on this issue since I showed up at Facebook's Seattle offices seeking local political ad disclosure on November 30, 2017.

This is not the first time Edwards has filed a complaint with the PDC.

But notably, his recent complaints against Facebook and Google ask both the PDC and Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson to refrain from taking any enforcement action.

"It is my request that neither the PDC nor the Attorney General's Office assert jurisdiction over this issue by commencing proceedings," Edwards wrote. "These agencies have both been aware of this issue for months and have failed to take any meaningful action. I have no reason to believe that they would act any differently during litigation or pro‐forma PDC proceedings."

The request is part of an attempt by Edwards to use a relatively obscure (and recently changed) provision in state law that allows someone to take "citizen action" to enforce state disclosure laws—provided the AG declines to do so.

With his complaints against Facebook and Google, Edwards narrowly beat the deadline for commencing a "citizen action" under the old rules.

Now Edwards must wait 45 days for Ferguson to decide whether his office will comply with the request not to "assert jurisdiction."

Another possibility is that Ferguson, who hasn't been shy about taking on big issues of the political moment, will decide he wants to wade into this dispute—which is a microcosm of the larger national debate over how to regulate online political ads.

For his part, Edwards said he's itching to take on Facebook and Google in court via "citizen action." The companies, he said, have been on notice for months about local laws and have the resources to comply. "They knew about this," he told me. "This is a big deal."

I've reached out to Ferguson's office for comment. I've also reached out to Facebook and Google and asked what they make of the complaints Edwards has filed against them. I'll update this post if I hear back.

UPDATE, 3:45 pm: In a statement, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said: "My office thoroughly reviews all Citizen Action Notices we receive and will make a decision in the coming weeks."