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Facebook provided false testimony in campaign transparency lawsuit, Washington attorney general says

David Gutman, The Seattle Times on

Published in News & Features

"Washington's law forces private parties to convey state-mandated messages to the public on demand, on pain of severe fines for failure to do so," the company wrote last year, asking for the lawsuit to be dismissed.

It is not illegal for Facebook to sell political ads, nor is it illegal for candidates or outside groups to buy them. But, after the 2018 lawsuit, Facebook voluntarily announced that it would stop selling political ads in Washington.

It didn't.

The company sold at least 171 ads to Washington state political committees, which paid the company at least $525,000 since November 2018, according to the Attorney General's Office. For example, the company accepted ads in Seattle's 2019 City Council races, as well as for a wide array of other campaigns across the state, including candidates for state representative, the Port of Tacoma commission, Spokane's City Council and Vancouver's school board.

Facebook, in a court filing, admits it has sold political ads in Washington after it said it would stop doing so. It said people and organizations who buy those ads are violating its policies and that it takes them down when it discovers them.

Facebook has made some details of political ads across the country available through a searchable public Ad Library. However, the library does not include all the legally required information for ads running in Washington state.

The lawsuit against Facebook was initially spurred by requests for ad information from two people: independent journalist Eli Sanders and political consultant Tallman Trask. (Both Sanders and Trask are now students at the University of Washington School of Law.)

Sanders and Trask asked for information on ads Facebook was selling and when they didn't get it, the state Public Disclosure Commission started an investigation. That eventually led to the attorney general's lawsuit, after the PDC declined to settle with Facebook.

 

As part of the lawsuit, the Attorney General's Office deposed a Facebook program manager. Lawyers asked him if there were any instances, other than the ones brought by Sanders and Trask, when people had requested information on Washington political ads on Facebook.

He said there were none, according to court documents.

"Both Facebook and its counsel were aware that testimony was false," Ferguson writes.

Facebook's attorneys did not object, court filings say, and later, when Facebook attorneys corrected the deposition transcript, they made no changes on that question.

In fact, Zach Wurtz, a political researcher, had made at least nine separate requests and had been in direct communication with Facebook's counsel, according to court filings.

"Facebook's misconduct prevented the State from learning about the additional undisclosed violations," Ferguson wrote.

And, Ferguson says, Facebook told Wurtz to fill out a form in order to get information, asking him to confirm he was a Washington resident and asking him for specific URLs of the ads he was interested in. State law allows anyone to request information, not just Washington residents, and it does not require a requester to provide specific URLs.

(c)2021 The Seattle Times Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.