OLYMPIA — One chapter of the Cowlitz PUD’s drama ended with a fizzle rather than a bang Thursday.
Former Cowlitz PUD Commissioner Mark McCrady and former PUD General Manager Brian Skeahan will each pay $250 to close the state’s Public Disclosure Commission’s election law investigation against them.
At a hearing in Olympia Thursday morning, both men agreed to a $500 fine relating to two of eight charges the PDC had investigated for 21 months. The PDC agreed to suspend half the fines, allowing each of the defendants to settle for $250.
PDC staff found six other complaints against the two, filed in 2013 by PUD Commissioner Merritt “Buz” Ketcham, did not warrant charges.
The charges resulted from photos taken of McCrady with PUD employees on the utility’s time and property and from what the PDC deemed to be a McCrady campaign document that was prepared by an employee on PUD staff time.
The photos were intended for use in his 2012 re-election campaign, but after McCrady’s campaign manager and PUD General Counsel Paul Brachvogel told him it would be a violation, he didn’t use the photos, according to the PDC investigation.
Skeahan essentially was allowed to plead no contest without admission of guilt to both charges against him. The PDC had accused him of “authorizing the use of PUD facilities” for election purposes relating to the photo and campaign document. Since he did try to stop McCrady from taking the photos as he did, he was able to get off lighter than McCrady — though the fines for the two were the same.
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“Mr. Skeahan said, ‘You can’t use public facilities’ and then perhaps didn’t use more oversight to make sure that advice was followed,” PDC Commissioner Amit Ranade said.
McCrady’s settlement had him admit to guilt on the photo violation and plead no contest to charges related to the campaign document, which McCrady had asked a PUD staff member to prepare for his use at a pre-election interview with The Daily News’ Editorial Board in October of 2012.
Ranade suggested that, based on the size of fines for similar campaign violations, the two should pay a reduced penalty.
“Once (McCrady) was advised it was a violation and he didn’t use the pictures, that does show integrity and does merit a reduction,” Ranade said.
The fine is cut in half provided both men pay the $250 within 30 days and do not come before the PDC again in the next four years.
McCrady and Skeahan both expressed gratitude to the PDC for its handling of the case and both said they were relieved to be done with the matter.
In a written statement, McCrady said he “dropped the ball on this,” and that “ignorance of the law is not an excuse and I intend to pay the civil penalty leveled against me without protest. I apologize to those who have voted for me and supported my campaigns over the years. I did not mean to disappoint or embarrass you.”
McCrady was on the PUD board for one six-year term, was a Longview’s city councilman 12 years, four of them as mayor.
Skeahan, also in a written statement, said, “While I am pleased at the outcome, I am certainly not surprised. I never believed these charges had merit and in fact believed Buz Ketcham filed them having, or having should have, known they were false.”
Skeahan added he would have liked to further contest the charges, but couldn’t justify it with the time and expense.
“I know many people would like to simply move on. However, those people haven’t had a couple of elected officials try to damage their reputation by publicly making false charges about them,” he said.
McCrady lost his seat on the three-member PUD Commission to Kurt Anagnostou in the 2012 election. Skeahan was fired by the new board in January 2013, setting off nearly two years of internal strife on the commission.
Commissioner Ketcham said he trusted the judgment of the PDC in its findings and the settlement on just the two charges.
“I’m happy it’s over,” he said. “It sounds like the PDC affirmed the findings of the commissioners two years ago — that there was a violation of law, that Brian needed to leave.”
The charges were issued more than a week ago after the PDC concluded its investigation, which began shortly after Skeahan was fired.
PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson said that after complaints are received, PDC staff investigates and determines if charges will be filed. If there are charges, the PDC will get a chance to hear the case and determine if there was a violation, though settlements are common.
“We always work to reach a settlement before the hearing time,” she said. “If that happens it’s up to the commission to accept that or not.”
The PDC can issue fines of up to $10,000. In 10 unrelated cases involving similar offenses, fines ranged from $150 to $600.
Using those cases as a benchmark, the fines Skeahan and McCrady agreed to were relatively average.
Brooks Johnson covers Longview city government, Cowlitz PUD and Lower Columbia College for The Daily News. Reach him at 360-577-7828 or firstname.lastname@example.org.