Updated at 6:25 p.m.
By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – All in less than 12 hours, one of the three-member Lewis County Board of Commissioners informed the news media another was under investigation by law enforcement, and the other provided a letter indicating a legal conclusion that the facts don’t rise to criminal liability.
The topic is an overheard conversation between Commissioner Edna Fund and a real estate developer about a campaign donation, at the end of a meeting in a county building when the two thought they were alone.
Commissioner Bill Schulte whose term ends this year and chose not to run for re-election, last night sent a memo to local news media, stating Fund is the subject of an investigation conducted by the Washington State Patrol.
“There will be no cover up,” Schulte wrote. “We will keep you informed as we get updated information.”
Schulte this morning said he only learned of it because a detective interviewed him about it.
“I can’t imagine it’s too bad, it just looks bad,” Schulte said. “You have to be careful during campaigns about when and where you have conversations about donations or favors.”
He said his two counterparts were not in agreement with informing the public, which is why the memo had only his name on it.
Commissioner Fund is currently running for a second four-year term. Her opponent is Daniel Keahey. Both are Republicans.
Fund this morning in a brief phone interview said the case was turned over to the Pacific County prosecutor for evaluation who released his findings, which she received a copy of yesterday, or maybe the day before.
Centralia-based real estate developer Frank Dipola initiated the conversation, according to Fund. And she told him that was not the proper place to talk about campaign matters, she said.
Pacific County Prosecutor Mark McClain’s findings affirm the nature of that seemingly brief conversation.
Fund said she’s pleased things got cleared up.
“It reinstates my cornerstone value of no campaigning in public buildings,” she said.
The meeting was held on May 3. Dipola and his wife Winnis Dipola each contributed $100 to Fund’s political campaign on May 13.
Fund said his project is not even in her district, and the topic of the meeting was a county employee the commissioners supervise, the same manner in which McClain’s findings characterized the meeting.
McClain wrote he reviewed the reports and “these facts do not give rise to criminal liability.”
He noted that developers like any other constituents may contribute to an elected official’s campaign, it didn’t appear Fund gave any special favors, the amount of the donation was “rather ordinary” and it was disclosed as expected to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
The minutes from the 50-minute long meeting don’t portray the topic as an employee related issue, but reveal Dipola discussing issues regarding property he wants to develop and a desire for the process to be expedited. He wants to build 14 apartment or condominium units, but had been told the rules allow for only seven units.
The meeting was attended by Commissioners Fund and Schulte as well as Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer and recorder Karri Muir. Lewis County Community Development Director Lee Napier joined them via telephone conference call.
The Southeast Spring Street property is in Chehalis’s urban growth area.
According to Schulte this morning, after everyone left the meeting room except for Fund and Dipola, Napier was still connected and overheard their conversation, and reported it to Meyer, who requested the state patrol look into it.
According to the investigative report, state patrol detective David Ortner was asked by Meyer to look into an inappropriate comment made by a constituent to a commissioner and the question he addressed was whether Dipola gave money to Fund’s campaign to obtain a benefit for his development.
The detective first spoke to Napier, who said she felt Dipola was unhappy with her telling him he could build only seven units and wanted to go over her head to the county commissioners to get approval for 14. Napier told the detective Commissioner Schulte during the meeting asked her to be accommodating to the developer and make it a priority to get it figured out.
Dipola has stated he’s already spent $100,000 developing the lots and surrounding properties, according to Ortner.
Napier said she heard people leave the room at the end of the meeting and was still on the other end of the speaker phone when she overheard Dipola tell Fund that he sure would like to contribute money to her campaign.
“Fund told Dipola that this was not the place to talk about that, and they would talk later, detective Ortner wrote of his interview with Napier.
Napier felt Commissioner Fund was put in a bad position by the developer and knows that Fund does not campaign in the courthouse, Ortner wrote.
When the detective attempted his final interview, on July 21, he called Dipola and told him he’d like to talk about the Spring Street project.
Dipola made the comment the county was giving him the run around, and he didn’t understand why the state patrol was involved. He stated he did not want to provide a statement and hung up, detective Ortner wrote.
McClain’s closing comment in his conclusions about the investigation, suggest that even though Fund publicly disclosed Dipola’s campaign contribution as required to the state PDC, she may be wise to make further disclosures should Dipola bring a project before the commissioners in the future.