The Washington State Public Disclosure Commission on Thursday rejected a settlement Facebook hoped to sign concerning charges the tech giant "repeatedly violated" state campaign finance law.
Instead, the PDC's commissioners voted to refer the matter to Attorney General Bob Ferguson for further investigation and possible prosecution.
In a statement after the vote, Ferguson said: "I appreciate the referral from the PDC. Facebook needs to follow Washington's campaign finance laws, just like everybody else."
Nodding to the fact that he sued Facebook over similar alleged violations in 2018, Ferguson added: "We take repeat violations of our campaign finance laws very seriously."
The scrapped settlement would have allowed Facebook, which is worth around $550 billion, to walk away from the current charges with a $75,000 fine, no admission of guilt, and no written promise to fully comply with this state's nation-leading political ad disclosure law going forward.
Both Facebook and the PDC's Executive Director, Peter Lavallee, expressed support for that kind of deal at yesterday's hearing, even though the proposed settlement terms had been described as "dangerous" and "troubling" by experts in campaign finance and digital ad transparency.
But by the end of the hearing, the PDC's five governor-appointed commissioners voted unanimously against the preferences of Facebook and Lavallee, nixing the proposed settlement and expressing their concern that such a deal would not have guaranteed "full compliance" by Facebook in the future.
To get real "closure" in this case, and to potentially achieve consistency with Ferguson's 2018 lawsuit (which resulted in a $200,000 fine for Facebook), the commissioners instead sent the matter over to the AG's office.
Just like Ferguson's 2018 lawsuit, this current case has it roots in requests for local Facebook political ad data made by The Stranger and, separately, a private citizen.
Facebook has refused to directly respond to those requests—which were made in 2019—even though state law requires 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.
While Facebook does provide some political ad data through its online ad library and ad library report, those offerings don't make enough disclosures about each ad's financing and reach to satisfy the requirements of Washington law, according to PDC investigators.
PDC Commissioner Fred Jarrett, a former deputy King County Executive, said he's hoping yesterday's vote will eventually lead to Facebook lifting the ban on Washington state political ads it enacted after Ferguson's 2018 settlement with the company. That ban has been both confusing and porous, as demonstrated by the current case, which connects to some of the hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of Washington state political ads Facebook sold, despite its supposed ban, throughout 2019.
"My goal is to have Facebook available as a platform for campaigns and to have them fully compliant," Jarrett said.
PDC Chair David Ammons echoed that sentiment.
"I'm not really taking a whack at Facebook so much as saying, 'Let’s find some finality with the current violations, let’s let the attorney general litigate that with them, and at the same time we have a contemporaneous conversation with Facebook and others about how we can get something that really serves the voters of Washington,'" Ammons said.
He believes that "something" will eventually end up including a publicly accessible, state-run digital archive "of all commercial advertising in campaigns."
But that kind of archive is a long way off. In the meantime, state law says Facebook needs to be making more robust disclosures around local political ads and Attorney General Ferguson says he's eager and ready to force Facebook to follow current law.
Former PDC Chair Anne Levinson, who earlier this month expressed serious concerns about the now-scuttled Facebook settlement, said yesterday's rejection of the deal and referral to Ferguson are "exactly the right result."
At a time when the Federal Election Commission is barely functioning and Congress has done virtually nothing to update federal election transparency laws for the digital age, state regulatory bodies like the PDC "have an even more important role in protecting the public than they ever have had in the past," Levinson said. "They need to do everything in their power to make sure the public interest is served."
Levinson, who stepped down as PDC Chair in December, continued: "We spent the last several years working to be able to lead the nation on digital ad transparency and on a range of campaign finance policy enforcement. Yesterday's vote was the right decision, and to have done otherwise would have been to not live up to what we'd accomplished before. It's a really good result."