Student e-mail prompts complaint in port race
September 5, 2001 ELECTION: WWU committee receives campaign message favoring professor.
Long-time community activist and self-appointed Port of Bellingham watchdog John Servais filed a complaint Saturday with the state Public Disclosure Commission alleging that Dan Warner's campaign used public resources to promote Warner's port commission bid.
Warner teaches business law at the university and his campaign manager, Linda Luttrell, is an administrative assistant in University Planning & Analysis.
Servais, who acknowledged in his PDC complaint that he supports Fairhaven businessman John Gargett in the port race, says computer graduate student Greg Kuhn forwarded a message from Luttrell to members of the Institutional Master Plan Committee, which Warner chairs.
Lutrell's message sought volunteers to doorbell for Warner on Aug. 29 and Sept. 17 and thanked campaign supporters.
Kuhn's name is on a note that was added before the message was forwarded to the committee membership list.
"This e-mail is about helping Western's Prof. Dan Warner in his campaign for getting elected port commissioner for Whatcom County," the note bearing Kuhn's sig-nature begins. "He is for smarter and sustainable economic development, including better alternative energy and transportation options. The Port Commission has money to subsidize new economic initiatives, if the right people get elected to it!"
Luttrell said she did not intend for Kuhn to distribute her message and she hopes the incident doesn't hurt Warner's chances.
"I was not aware that Greg was going to do that, and I think he made a terrible mistake," she said.
Kuhn could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
State law prohibits the use of public resources including equipment, supplies and staff -- during working hours, in election campaigns.
Warner said Tuesday that Kuhn distributed the message without his knowledge or consent, using his own student e-mail account. Kuhn has access to the committee list because he is a member, Warner said.
Warner said he learned about the incident Friday night when called by the university provost.
"I know what the rules are and, as a result of this, I am extra cognizant," Warner said.
Warner, a former Whatcom County councilman, is calling for more community involvement in port economic development decisions. He says the port should invest in sustainable development, focusing on existing small businesses and local startup efforts. Warner, Gargett, drug dependency counselor Tom Spanos and incumbent Scott Walker are competing for Position No. 1 on the port commission.
"Dan is a worthy opponent," Gargett said. "To me, this is a distraction."
Gargett sent an e-mail Tuesday to Karen Morse, WWU president, requesting a full investigation and an explanation.
"That's my question -- how could it occur?" Gargett said.
But he also suggested that the university issue a press release stating that it does not favor any candidate.
"I say this not to embarrass the university or Mr. Warner, rather to ensure that the great name of a great university is not harmed," Gargett said in his e-mail to Morse.
Servais says all he wants is a response from the university and from Warner.
"I don't think anybody should be fired," Servais said.
Warner said he is disappointed that the incident could divert attention from more important issues that primary candidates should address.
"This is politics," he said.
Phil Stutzman, the Public Disclosure Commission's compliance director, said he needs to talk with Servais again to clarify whether his complaint is against Kuhn, Warner or Luttrell before he can proceed. He said the law applies to candidates and state agency employees.
The candidates are probably hoping for a resolution before the Sept. 18 primary but that is unlikely to happen, Stutzman said.
"The wheels of justice take a little bit longer than that," he said.
Bob Edie, the university's vice president for external affairs, said the PDC has not contacted university officials about the complaint.
"We don't know what the PDC will do," Edie said. "From our perspective, the issue is fairly clear cut."
But if there is an investigation, he said the university will cooperate fully.
Edie said university officials advised Warner to make sure his campaign workers are aware of a prohibition against using university resources on election campaigns. Officials also talked to Kuhn about the inappropriate use of a university e-mail list although students are technically not covered by the PDC prohibitions, Edie said.
Information about the appropriate use of university facilities, letterhead, telephones and e-mail is included in the first faculty and student newsletter distributed each year in late September, but Edie said an e-mail bulletin was sent out immediately after university officials learned of the complaint.
"We appreciate Mr. Gargett letting us know about his concern," Edie said.
Sharon Michael, Copyright © 2000 The Bellingham Herald