Politics Blog

Knutzen admits to fake Browne website, takes it down

This is to follow up on Friday afternoon's post about a "Real Rud Browne" website that in fact was an anti-Browne site that criticized him for sending jobs overseas and for being funded by an environmentalist billionaire from California.

At the bottom of the fake page, it said "Paid for by Knutzen for Council."

Browne is challenging Bill Knutzen for his seat on the Whatcom County Council, in what has been an expensive and negative campaign for four council seats.

The website, rudbrowne.org, has since been taken down, so there's nothing to link to. So has the original Facebook page, which is how we first found "Real Rud Browne" and "RudBrowne.org." It popped up on a coworker's Facebook feed on Friday afternoon because whoever created the Facebook page promoted it to appear on FB locally.

I noticed this morning that some commenters on my post speculated that the hoax-website itself was a hoax; i.e., was posted (with money spent to "promote" it on FB) by someone trying to make Knutzen look bad.

I talked to Knutzen this morning and he said the website was in fact the work of his campaign.

"Some of my campaign people have been wanting to hit back" against Browne's negative campaigning, Knutzen said. Most notably, Browne distributed a flier with a sad toddler in a panda suit who -- if Knutzen would have had his way -- would not have been able to visit the pumpkin patch.

"I tried to discourage that," Knutzen continued, speaking of his campaign's desire to retaliate. "Anything I found, I pulled down." In other words, he had RudBrowne.org removed.

Browne, when called this Monday morning, said he had seen the site. He looked at a screenshot of it as he responded to some of its claims:

To connect Browne to Tom Steyer, the California billionaire, was "absurd," Browne said. "I've never met him."

A couple degrees of separation, however, do connect the two men politically. Steyer gave to the Washington Conservation Voters Action Fund, which in turn gave the maximum $900 to the Browne campaign and spent almost $80,615.86 trying to get Browne elected through an independent campaign. WCV received $275,000 from Steyer's NextGen Climate Action Committee.

Republican-endorsed candidates are also benefiting from outside money in a couple of ways, although one isn't likely to be proven.

Take Knutzen as an example. Save Whatcom / Whatcom First, a local conservative Political Action Committee, has spent $21,673.17 in an independent campaign to get Knutzen elected. SW / WF has received $144,000 from coal interests and SSA Marine combined. SSA Marine would build a coal export terminal at Cherry Point.

On another front, Knutzen has received $1,800 from the Whatcom Republicans and $500 from the state Republicans in direct contributions. The county Republicans have also launched an independent campaign for the conservative County Council candidates. The Whatcom GOP has spent $3,019.95 on Knutzen's behalf.

UPDATE: In a phone interview after this was posted, Knutzen said he doesn't appreciate being tarred with a coal brush when just about all of his donations are from "hard-working Whatcom County citizens." It's true, a review of the direct contributors to his campaign shows Whatcom (and a couple Skagit) donors across the board. eResources from Virginia is actually Dusty Gulleson of Bellingham. This doesn't change the distinct possibility of a link between BNSF/PIT money and Knutzen's campaign via the Republicans. It also doesn't change the fact that Whatcom First / Save Whatcom is using coal money to pay for fliers supporting Knutzen.

The state GOP has received $45,000 from BNSF Railway and Pacific International Terminals. Democrats have claimed this money was earmarked for the conservative Whatcom candidates, but Republicans deny this.

(Of that $45,000, $30,000 came from PIT and $15,000 from BNSF. Of BNSF's total, $4,500 was donated to the party's "nonexempt" coffer, for direct candidate support. The rest, $40,500, went to the "exempt" side of the Republican Party's ledger. PACs aren't limited in how much they can donate in exempt funds, but the party can only spend this money on a few things as outlined in state code: 

... for voter registration, for absentee ballot information, for precinct caucuses, for get-out-the-vote campaigns, for precinct judges or inspectors, for sample ballots, or for ballot counting, all without promotion of or political advertising for individual candidates;... for its own internal organization or fundraising without direct association with individual candidates; or ... An expenditure or contribution for independent expenditures as defined in RCW 42.17A.005 or electioneering communications as defined in RCW 42.17A.005.)

Anyway, where were we? Oh yes, Browne was responding to the attacks from the fake Rud Browne website, which can no longer be viewed on the Internet. Republicans have tried to paint him as someone who outsourced jobs to China or some other foreign country. Not true, Browne said. Outsourcing is to cut jobs in America and replace those workers with cheaper employees overseas. Browne said he has sent "zero" jobs to China, and the jobs he created in countries such as the UK were sales and repair jobs because his American-made products were being sold in foreign markets, he said.

These foreign jobs weren't replacing American workers but were added to Browne's ranks as his business expanded and became global.

As for a general reaction to "RudBrowne.org," Browne said maybe ironically it gave a lift to his campaign.

"We got a lot of people who thought it just crossed the line into absolute absurdity," he said.

The Browne-Knutzen battle is being fought on the accounting front, too. Knutzen mentioned to me today that Browne's camp was coming to see him this evening to audit his campaign books. When asked about this, Browne said his campaign was taking that action because the Knutzen campaign had made an appointment for this afternoon to audit Browne's books.

UPDATE: Knutzen called after this was published to deny that his camp was auditing Browne.

UPDATE 2: ... Shortly before 4 p.m. on Monday, after I had posted the first update, Browne called to say he canceled the planned audit of Knutzen's books.

It's almost over, folks. If you haven't turned in your ballot yet and intend to do so, you have less than 33 hours. Ballots have been turned in so far at a rate that suggests

turnout will be lower

than the previous two odd-year elections.