Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson says: "My office takes repeat violations of campaign finance laws seriously." Karen Ducey / Getty Images

He sued Facebook in 2018, saying the company had repeatedly broken Washington state campaign finance laws by failing to make required disclosures about millions of dollars in local political ads.

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Then, six months later, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson agreed to let Facebook settle the matter without an admission of guilt—but required the tech giant to pay a $200,000 penalty and warned that Facebook must follow Washington state's nation-leading election transparency laws going forward, or else "they're going to hear from us again."

Now Ferguson is telling state election regulators in Olympia that he "stands ready" to take Facebook to court over allegations that the company, within less than two months of his 2018 warning, went right back to breaking the same state law again, in the same way, repeatedly.

In a February 20 letter to leaders of the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, which last year charged Facebook with the new violations of state law, Ferguson told commission Chair David Ammons:

"My office takes repeat violations of campaign finance laws seriously. With regard to Facebook or any respondent that the Commission determines to be repeat violators of state campaign finance laws warranting prompt state action in court, my office stands ready to accept and act on the Commission's referrals."

By sending the letter, Ferguson was drawing attention to the power the PDC has to "refer enforcement matters to the Attorney General's Office for additional investigation and court action" whenever the PDC "believes that additional authority is needed to ensure full compliance with the state's campaign finance laws."

The agency has now spent more than a year investigating the current Facebook case, which, like Ferguson's 2018 lawsuit against Facebook, grows out of requests for local Facebook political ad data made by The Stranger and, separately, a private citizen.

The requests at the center of the current case were made in 2019 but, just like in the 2018 case, Facebook has refused to comply with state law requiring the company to disclose, to "any person" who asks, significant information on the financing and reach of election ads sold to influence this state's local races and ballot measures.

Even so, staff for the PDC recently presented a proposed settlement to commissioners that would allow Facebook to pay a $75,000 fine, again avoid any admission of guilt, and also avoid any promises of future compliance with state disclosure law.

After reviewing the proposed Facebook settlement, a half-dozen experts in campaign finance and digital ad transparency told The Stranger the deal is "dangerous," "troubling," and an insufficient "slap on the wrist" that "certainly isn’t going to serve as a deterrent in the future."

Ten days after that story was published, Ferguson sent his letter to PDC Chair Ammons, copying the agency's four other commissioners and a half-dozen lawyers in the attorney general's complex litigation and government compliance and enforcement divisions.

The AG's office did not respond to follow-up questions about Ferguson's letter to the PDC, but Kim Bradford, a spokesperson for the PDC, confirmed Ammons had received the letter and said he'd sent no response ("nor did the attorney general ask for one").

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Bradford also noted that Ferguson has the authority to "request" that matters be referred to him. His letter to Ammons, though it could certainly be read as an invitation to referral, stops short of making a formal request.

But Ammons and the rest of the commissioners are scheduled to discuss the proposed Facebook settlement tomorrow, February 27, at a 1 pm public hearing in Olympia.

If commissioners choose to set aside the "dangerous" settlement that Facebook "urges" them to accept, they could also choose to take Ferguson up on the implied offer in his February 20 letter: refer this case over to AG's office and Ferguson will show Facebook that, as he wrote in his letter, "my office takes repeat violations of campaign finance laws seriously."

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