Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs is facing a complaint filed with the Washington State Executive Ethics Board. The complaint arises out of a contract with an international cybersecurity firm to monitor private citizens’ communications on social media.
The Washington State Republican Party, in filing the complaint on Wednesday, objected to the use of public funds to surveil critics of the majority party.
“It is a violation of state laws and ethics rules on the use of public resources,” party Chair Jim Walsh said in a news release. “More importantly, it is an intimidation tactic to chill free speech and what the Washington State Constitution calls ‘absolute freedom of conscience’ – a value often associated with freedom of religion but, in fact, much broader.”
Walsh said he was made aware of the situation by a couple of concerned citizens who had filed public records requests on a variety of topics. Among the items they received in response were bi-weekly reports from U.K.-based Logically AI Inc. to Hobbs and his colleagues.
The report for the period July 21 through August 3 flagged four narratives as possible concerns based on social media posts by Walsh, several private individuals, and Bill Bruch, Chairman of the State Republican Party Election Integrity Committee.
The briefing includes a description of each narrative, screenshots of the relevant social media posts and the projected impact. The cybersecurity company also reported the number of times the original post was liked, shared or commented on by others.
Emails prior to the finalization of the sole-source contract refer to a project kick-off meeting to discuss “threat and election narrative monitoring.”
The ethics complaint asserts that the draft scope of work includes “producing reports of citizen comments, trends and statistics” with regular “briefings to Secretary Hobbs and outside stakeholders.”
It is unclear if the scope of work includes filing requests to suppress posts identified as threats, and public records requests submitted to the Secretary of State’s office for a copy of the contract have been given a tentative time frame of April before the contract will be released, according to Walsh.
“It’s my impression that the secretary and his staff understand this is bad optics and a bad contract,” Walsh said. “We have asked the Ethics Board to compel Secretary Hobbs to cancel this unethical contract with Logically AI Inc.”
The Secretary of State’s Office was emailed with a request for comment. None was received by the time of publication.