Embattled Washington Rep. Matt Shea is skirting state law to funnel campaign funds to far-right groups

Embattled conspiracy theorist and Washington state Republican Rep. Matt Shea has been skirting Washington state law to funnel campaign contributions to far-right nonprofit groups in Colorado and Arizona, a Hatewatch investigation reveals.

Shea uses his office and campaign funds to spearhead a partitionist effort to split Washington into two states, and may have violated state laws by using surplus campaign funds to make at least $5,500 in contributions to far-right nonprofit organizations that are not registered as charities with the Washington Secretary of State. State law requires charities to be registered with the state to receive surplus campaign funds.

Shea is a vocal supporter of the anti-public lands extremist movement, is closely affiliated with members of the antigovernment militia movement, is a celebrity within the antigovernment-inspired American Redoubt movement and for years has taken to propagating anti-Muslim bigotry including forming the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the anti-Muslim hate group ACT for America.

Shea’s surplus campaign account made a $3,500 donation Sept. 10 to the anti-Muslim hate group Americans for America of Centennial, Colorado. The group hired John Guandolo, a former FBI agent well known for his anti-Muslim activism, as director of training.

Guandolo was paid $123,000 by the group in 2017 for “training of law enforcement personnel in the field,” according to a report based on the organization’s 2017 tax returns that was published this week in the Texas Observer. Guandolo has appeared on Shea’s Patriot Radio broadcast where Shea expressed interest in bringing Guandolo to Washington to provide law enforcement training.

Shea also tapped surplus campaign funds to make a $2,000 donation on Aug. 24 to Citizens for Free Speech, a Mesa, Arizona, nonprofit. Citizens for Free Speech is operated by Patrick Wood and received IRS tax approval earlier this year. The organization’s website states its purpose is to promote “men and women of moral and religious integrity to assert their influence in local communities by actually doing it.” Wood is widely followed by antigovernment activists and antisemitic white supremacist groups, and the SPLC has identified him as the foremost authority on the “one world” conspiracy theory.

Washington allows candidates to deposit excess campaign contributions into a surplus account. Unlike campaign accounts where funds can be used for election expenses, surplus fund accounts are more tightly restricted. Surplus funds can only be used to refund campaign contributions, transfer funds to a political party or caucus political committee, be deposited in the state Treasury, be used for future political campaigns, reimburse elected officials “for nonreimbursed, public office-related expenses” or be donated to nonprofit organizations registered with the state.

The contributions to the two nonprofits reflect Shea’s ties across the gamut of the American far-right.

Washington state election officials this week opened two separate inquiries into campaign expenditures from Shea’s surplus account, the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) said. The commission has the authority to assess $10,000 per violation. It can also refer a case to the Attorney General's Office, which is able to seek higher penalties in court.

The PDC has given Shea until Dec. 19 to respond to a citizen’s complaint over his use of surplus campaign funds to pay for radio broadcasts, advertising and purchase of broadcast equipment, PDC spokeswoman Kim Bradford said.

The funds were used to pay for radio broadcasts on Shea’s Patriot Radio show on the American Christian Network that operates six AM and FM stations in eastern Washington. Shea also used the funds to purchase advertising on Redoubt News, a website which the SPLC lists as an antigovernment, conspiracy propaganda organization.

He acknowledged in a rambling Facebook video that he wrote and distributed a religious manifesto called the “Biblical Basis for War.” The document and his explanation generated national press and infuriated some major contributions including at least seven who have asked for refunds. These contributors donated $10,500 of the $109,000 he collected in 2018.

The four-page document states that before a declaration of war, the enemy must be given the opportunity to “stop all abortions,” end “same-sex marriage,” eliminate “idolatry or occultism” and ban “communism,” and that everyone “must obey Biblical Law.” If the enemy does “not yield,” the manifesto states, then “kill all the males.”

Late last month, House Republicans, who are in the minority in the Washington Legislature, stripped Shea of his party leadership role as caucus chair where he led party meetings and helped set legislative agendas. Prior to serving as caucus chair, Shea was assistant floor leader for seven years. State investigations into illegal campaign fund expenditures could now jeopardize his prospect for an appointment as the ranking member on legislative committees.

Shea wants to be appointed as the senior Republican member on the environment or judiciary committees. If Shea is overlooked, political experts say that would be a clear signal that Republican leaders have had enough of Shea’s divisive actions and inflammatory statements and intend to marginalize his political power.

The PDC complaint was filed Nov. 19 by Aaron Jarvis, a volunteer for Democrat Ted Cummings, who challenged Shea in last month’s race. Shea, a Republican, easily won his sixth term by a 58–42 percent margin.

The complaint alleges Shea’s campaign violated state law when it used surplus campaign funds to purchase $12,000 for radio broadcasts on the American Christian Network, $1,750 in advertising with the Redoubt News website and $2,248 for broadcast equipment.

Bradford, the PDC spokeswoman, said the state has 90 days from receipt of a complaint to determine whether to dismiss the matter, settle the case with an administrative penalty or, if serious enough, request a formal investigation that could lead to a hearing before the Public Disclosure Commission.

Olympia attorney Walter Smith, who has extensive experience in Washington campaign finance law, states in an email to Hatewatch that Shea’s donation to Americans for America “does not appear to be an allowed use of surplus funds.” Smith questioned the legality of the Citizens for Free Speech donation “which does not show up as a charity and raises the same issues in my mind.”

Smith also raised concerns related to two $1,000 donations Shea’s campaign surplus fund made to Daniels Prayer Ministry in Olympia, Washington, in March 2017 and last February. Daniels Prayer Ministry is not on Washington’s registered charities list. However, the state exempts entities recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as religious organizations from its charity registration requirements. The ministry is registered with the IRS as a religious organization.

Bradford said that Smith filed a citizen’s complaint earlier this week concerning Shea’s surplus fund contributions to the three unregistered charities. The PDC, she said, has given Shea until Dec. 20 to respond to his complaint. Smith filed the complaint after he was contacted by Hatewatch for comment on the nonprofit donations.

Hatewatch contacted Smith because he has a history of filing campaign finance complaints against many state legislators, including Shea. In October 2017, Smith filed a campaign finance complaint against Shea for failing to report contributions and expenditures in a timely manner. The complaint resulted in a January 2018 judgment ordering Shea to pay $3,750 in attorney fees to Smith’s firm and a $1,000 civil penalty to the state. Shea used his campaign surplus funds to pay the attorney fees and fine last January.

Legislators and campaign experts say elected officials usually use surplus campaign funds to support their political parties, hold the funds in reserve for use in future political campaigns for the same office or use the money to pay for expenses directly related to their state position that the state does not reimburse.

In Shea’s case, state investigators will likely have to determine if his use of surplus funds to buy radio air time, purchase ads and buy broadcast equipment falls under nonreimbursed, public office-related expenses. The state defines a nonreimbursed public office related expense as “an expenditure incurred by an elected or appointed official, or a member of his or her immediate family, solely because of being an official.”

Shea has routinely used both regular campaign contributions and surplus funds to purchase air time, advertising and broadcast equipment as well as to reimburse himself for travel expenses touring the state advocating splitting Washington in two at the Cascade Mountains to create a 51st state to be called Liberty, state campaign finance records show.

From October 2017 through October 2018, Shea spent $15,000 from his regular campaign account to purchase air time with American Christian Network (ACN). Just prior to this, from December 2016 through September 2017, Shea instead used $11,000 from his surplus account to purchase ACN airtime.

Shea’s Patriot Radio shows generally open with a lengthy religious indoctrination, followed by Shea’s analysis of the news of the day and concluding with an interview of typically far-right leaders. Shea’s news analysis is often based on reports from InfoWars and the far-right World Net Daily, both of which the SPLC lists as antigovernment, conspiracy and propaganda sites.

Shea has also tapped both his regular campaign account and his surplus account to reimburse himself for travel expenses related to his promotion of a 51st state. Shea reimbursed himself $132 on Sept. 6 and $205 on Sept. 20 out of his surplus account for 51st state related travel expenses, state records show. Shea also withdrew funds from his regular campaign account to pay for 51st state related travel expenses including $90 on Feb. 13, $147 and $58 both on April 10, $801 on June 4, and $119 on Aug. 7.

Shea has won each of his six elections by a comfortable margin in the very conservative district. This has allowed him to collect more than enough donations to cover his campaign expenses. Shea has transferred $140,000 to his surplus campaign account since 2011, state records show.

Shea’s surplus account has spent $88,000 since it was created, with the largest single expenditures going to the House Republican Organizing Committee that received $5,000 in 2011, $25,000 in 2016 and $5,000 this year. Shea has $51,400 remaining in surplus funds, according to his latest disclosure report filed on Sept. 30.

It might not be as easy for Shea to raise money in the future. Eight of his major donors have already issued statements denouncing Shea’s religious manifesto, with seven demanding refunds. Two major donors that contributed the maximum of $2,000 to Shea’s 2018 campaign said they will no longer contribute to Shea in the future.

“No future contributions will be made to this individual,” Farmers Insurance spokesman Luis Sahagun stated in a Nov. 15 email to Hatewatch.

Avista, a Washington utility, also made it clear the company was done with Shea.

Mary Tyrie, communications manager for Avista, stated in a Nov. 20 email to Hatewatch, “We do not plan on contributing to Rep. Shea again.”

Photo illustration by SPLC

Editor's Note: This post has been updated.

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