OLYMPIA — A Bellevue-based gun-rights organization claims it has been unlawfully targeted by the state attorney general through a yearslong investigation by its Consumer Protection Division.
The Second Amendment Foundation, its founder Alan Gottlieb, and several other affiliated organizations initially sued Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson in federal court over the investigation in May. This week, the organization moved the lawsuit to state court, where it believes it will get a quicker resolution.
In a complaint filed Monday in King County Superior Court, the organizations claim that Ferguson's office has investigated them for over two years but has provided little and inconsistent information about what the investigation is about. They also say the Attorney General's Office has required the organizations to turn over "tens of thousands" of pages of documents. The lawsuit claims the organizations have spent over $100,000 on legal services.
In response to questions from The Seattle Times, the AG's office said it was obligated to investigate and enforce laws barring self-dealing and "illegal misappropriation of charitable donations."
The move is just one more volley in a slew of legal battles between the state and the Second Amendment Foundation, who are often at odds, mostly over gun-control policies that the state has lately passed.
In late April, the foundation and other opponents sued to strike down a new law banning the sale of assault-style rifles such as AR-15s and AK-47s. Ferguson, a Democrat who is running for governor, has backed that policy and other gun-control measures, like a ban on the manufacture, sale and distribution of magazines with more than 10 rounds. Last week, Ferguson announced the state was suing a Cowlitz County gun retailer and its owner for violating the ban.
In the lawsuit over the investigation, the groups argue that the Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General's Office "singled out SAF and Mr. Gottlieb for invasive and expensive harassment because of their political beliefs and activities," including their positions on gun control and vocal criticism of Ferguson. The lawsuit also describes the attorney general's investigation as "nothing more than a fishing expedition."
Brionna Aho, a spokesperson for the Attorney General's Office, said it was their "duty to investigate and enforce Washington laws prohibiting self-dealing and the illegal misappropriation of charitable donations."
"We've seen Mr. Gottlieb's organization in court in the past and have prevailed every time," Aho said. "He's obviously frustrated by that. Any suggestion that an investigation is politically motivated is a sure sign of desperation."
Gottlieb said in a statement that "we believe we will do better in the state courts," pointing to a recent judgment that went against the Attorney General's Office after it sued the Bellevue company TVI, which operates Value Village thrift stores.
In February, the Washington Supreme Court dismissed the case, saying the state's consumer protection claims infringed on TVI's right under the First Amendment to solicit charitable donations.
The Supreme Court has kicked the case back to King County Superior Court. That court has said TVI is entitled to some amount of fees related to the costs of the case, but the amount has not been set yet, according to the Attorney General's Office.
"After much deliberation, we felt it was best to move this lawsuit to state court where the Washington Attorney General has already been held to account for abusing his office's authority," Adam Kraut, executive director of the Second Amendment Foundation, said in a statement. "SAF has, and continues to, cooperate with the Attorney General's Office by providing requested information, offering employees for depositions, and delivering updated documents before they are requested."
"We can't wait to start discovery and make the Attorney General produce documents and sit for a deposition," Gottlieb said, saying they had no further comment beyond that and a press release issued earlier this week.
The Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division enforces the state's Consumer Protection Act. The office has regularly sued companies it believes are misleading consumers, from Comcast to Johnson & Johnson. The AG has recovered at least $1.63 billion through consumer protection cases since 2013. Aho said the TVI case was the office's only consumer protection loss since 2011.