When I heard news last month that Amazon was dumping $1 million into our local elections, I started wondering what the actual check written to purchase Seattle's city council looked like.
I pictured Jeff Bezos donning a top hat and monocle, writing out the sum on a giant piece of cardboard, and then presenting it downtown, sweepstakes-style, to a living glass condo wearing a suit.
The reality is a bit more banal than that.
As you've probably heard, the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision gives corporations like Amazon the right to speak politically through big-ass checks that will quickly be spent by powerful political action committees—in this case, the "Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy" PAC run by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. As Mitt Romney has taught us, "corporations are people," and protecting their free speech is our constitutional duty. So I figured it would be interesting to see, with my own eyes, the language Amazon is using in Seattle as it exercises its right to talk this way.
Once I saw the check, my plan was to use my own free speech rights to put an actual image of it in front of your eyes.
But it turns out that showing you the money itself is more difficult than donating $1 million to influence city council races in Seattle. So, above is my expertly drawn rendering of the checks Amazon wrote to fund its $1 million donation to Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (aka CASE). And below is the journey I went on—through two downtown Seattle coffee shops, multiple paid political consultants, and a small thicket of disclosure law—to find out just how hard it is to bring you the actual speech Amazon uses when it talks politics.
Journey to the Heart of Starbucks
According to a news advisory from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, if I wanted to review CASE's books I could meet the PAC's compliance officer at a Starbucks downtown during a two-hour window on a recent Monday.
Sounded like a good deal.
The city helpfully publishes political contributions and expenditures online, but most reporters don't take the time to look at the actual books in person, and, in this case, I was determined to be the guy who does look at the actual books.
Looking at the books gives you a chance to see the checks written to influence our politics, and it also allows you to browse copies of invoices between PACs and their subcontractors, which can reveal interesting information about whomst is paying whomst, exactly how much, and for what.
Also, as mentioned, I just wanted to see the damn million-dollar check, and I wanted to learn more about the contract CASE has with Zero Week Solutions, a firm the PAC has hired to canvass for its candidates. So I went.
Five minutes before 3 p.m., I walked into the Starbucks, ordered a bad coffee, and waited for Lora Haggard to walk in. Haggard, who also works for Blue Wave Fundraising, is CASE's treasurer. After 15 minutes, I called Blue Wave to ask why Haggard hadn't shown up yet.
The receptionist told me Haggard wouldn't be showing up because she was on a trip to Nashville. (Well-timed trip, treasurer!) Now I was to meet someone named Eli at Zeitgeist Coffee, which was a couple blocks up the street.
Journey to the Heart of Zeitgeist
So not only did I have to buy a bad cup of coffee, I now had to track down a person with "short black hair wearing a black sweater" in a busy Seattle coffee shop. When I walked in, several patrons matched this description.
Eventually, I found Eli and started looking over the documents and checks. The cafe was playing Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited in its entirety, so I was listening to Dylan sing about insurance men ensuring that nobody was escaping Desolation Row as I perused checks so large they could knock out my student loan debt in a single swipe.
I found no invoices, which was a bummer; just a ledger showing money in, money out, and bank statements.
The Washington State Public Disclosure Commission requires committees and candidates to bring checks and invoices if they don't keep such a ledger. But they showed me a ledger, I guess, so they didn't have to show me the invoices. Cool rule.
CASE filed Amazon's million dollars in one PDF document labeled Batch 2065, which also included big donations from Vulcan, Starbucks, and the Washington Association for Realtors. "Nice batch," I imagined the PAC leaders saying over an expensive lunch. "Beautiful bouquet. And the terroir—pure, unmatched power."
All told, Batch 2065 represented $1,135,000 in contributions to CASE. All that money just to hit you over the head with images and phrases enough times to get you to vote for Big Business's candidates or to stay home out of general disgust for the system.
As it turned out, Amazon wrote two checks as it dropped its million dollars into Batch 2065. One check for $300,000 was written on Oct 8, and another check for $750,000 was written on Oct 11.
I'm not sure why they split the checks like that, though I assume it wasn't for cash flow purposes. Amazon hasn't returned a request for comment.
Compared to the other big-money checks in the race, Amazon's Wells Fargo checks looked like they were printed at a Costco. Big and bland, with the word VOID stamped across it multiple times in block letters. Fitting, I guess, since they're dedicating the money to voiding the council's incumbents (save Council Member Debora Juarez) and replacing them with candidates who've promised to ask nicely before passing any taxes that might hit Bezos.
The other companies used fancier checks. Starbucks included their little mermaid logo in the upper left hand corner, and the realtors used a gaudy orange and red check from Olympia Federal Savings. The Amazon check, in contrast, was as impassive and free of flourish as the bald dome of its founder.
No Photos Allowed
When I pulled up the Amazon checks, I asked Eli if I could take a photo or a screenshot of it. Eli said no, that isn't allowed.
I said I could take a photo if CASE would let me, as the action is permitted but not completely secured by law.
Eli then admitted being new to compliance, and so made a call. The person on the other end of the call said I'd have to ask Haggard if I could take a photo, and Haggard was on a trip at the moment, so no. Haggard has not returned several requests for comment about why she wouldn't allow me to take a photo of the big daddy Amazon money checks.
Though I could spend two hours taking notes on CASE's contributions, expenditures, and bank statements, the law defers to PACs themselves on the decision of "copying" documents—i.e. taking a photo or a screenshot so that I can speak to you in the clearest way I know about their money-speech.
The reason for this deference is that the PDC has traditionally interpreted the "public inspections law" to cover the public's right to "view" documents, but not to "copy" them, according to a spokesperson at the PDC.
Hence my drawing.
CASE won't tell me why they won't let you see the check, but we can speculate. My hunch is that they don't want you to see the actual check because it makes the million dollars more real. It makes the million an object in the world, rather than a mercurial apparition that transforms into canvassers who project enthusiasm for candidates who wouldn't otherwise have it, or misleading mailers that play on racist stereotypes.
Swap "Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy" on that check with any of the names of the homeless services providers listed in this Stranger post from last year, and that million could have paid for 150 tiny houses, or permanent housing for 60 people for a year, or a new youth shelter, or a couple foster homes, or food and lots of showers and laundry service for people who need it.
Instead, they're using that money to make sure the next council doesn't try to pass a modest tax, buoyed by mandate from the people. And if you want to capture that money in a photo that might reach as many eyeballs as $1 million can buy? Sorry, that's not allowed.