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Legislature looks at changing ethics investigations

The Legislative Building of the Washington State Capitol, Olympia.

February 10, 2015 - 10:47 am

By John Stang

Sen. Pam Roach feels Lt. Gov. Brad Owen’s pain. So does Sen. Don Benton.

Owen’s pain is a $15,000 fine that the Washington Executive Ethics Board levied against him last September for running his nonprofit anti-drug program out of his public office. The fine has $5,000 suspended with the assumption of no future ethics infractions, with the remaining $10,000 to be paid in monthly installments over two years. The board’s investigation lasted from 2012 to 2014.

That fine prompted two state senators to introduce bipartisan bills on the subject this session.

Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, wants to expand the definition of a state official’s duties to include those that are “intended to protect, promote, educate, and serve the citizens of the state of Washington.” The practical result would be that Owen’s work with children could be considered as part of his duties as lieutenant governor.

Meanwhile, Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, introduced a bill that would forbid an ethics board from using the state attorney general’s office in its investigations. The bill spells out that the attorney general’s office would represent an accused elected official in any legal actions resulting from such an investigation. Liias described the current relationship between the executive and legislative ethics boards and the attorney general’s office as equivalent to having a judge oversee a prosecutor.

Neither bill helps Owen in his $15,000 fine because that matter is now closed, he told the Senate Government Operations Committee on Monday. However, the bills were “solely generated by the frustration and unbelievable experience I have had,” Owen said. He contended he did not have a chance to testify before the executive ethics board prior to receiving his fine.

Roach, R-Auburn and chairwoman of the Government Operations Committee, and committee member Benton, R-Vancouver, sympathized with Owen, saying that the procedures of ethics probes have been too slanted against the accused. Roach has been on the receiving end of such probes. The Republican-controlled Majority Coalition Caucus investigated Benton regarding a nasty feud in 2013. Meanwhile, Roach and Benton have filed their own unsuccessful ethics complaints against others last year.

“I was put through hell in my campaign,” Roach said. Last year, she and fellow conservative Republican Rep. Cathy Dahlquist of Enumclaw clashed in a very bitter Senate race that Roach won. Conservative Democrat Rep. Chris Hurst, D- Enumclaw, helped Dahlquist.

During the campaign, Hurst and Dahlquist filed three ethics complaints against Roach, all pertaining to a 2013 trip to Turkey and Azerbaijan while the 2013 legislative session was underway. The Washington Legislative Ethics Board cleared her of all three charges. At the same time, Roach filed four ethics complaints against Dahlquist and Hurst pertaining to the timing of a fundraising event; remarks that Dahlquist and Hurst made about her trip to Turkey and Azerbaijan; and Hurst’s conversations with an attorney who was planning to run for a judicial position. The legislative ethics board also dismissed those four complaints.

Roach quizzed David Horn, a chief deputy at the attorney general office, on why Owen did not get a chance to testify before the executive ethics board. Horn replied that Owen settled his case before the actual hearing could take place.

Roach interrupted Horn and told him that Owen and other elected officials don’t have the thousands of dollars needed to get legal representation before the executive and legislative ethics boards. Owen “didn’t have access because he didn’t have the extra money. … I know the person on the hot seat doesn’t get fairness,” Roach told Horn.

Benton agreed with Roach and Owen, saying that he had bad experiences being investigated by the Senate Facilities & Operations Committee — a normally obscure housekeeping and personnel matters panel. “I was shocked on how you could be treated. … I found the ways that I and others were treated by the F&O board appalling,” Benton said at Monday’s hearing.

Benton was chairman of the Facilities & Operations Committee in 2013 and 2014.

In 2013 as chairman of the Facilities & Operations Committee, Benton presided over the dismissal of two investigations involving Roach — her alleged verbal abuse of a Republican staffer and a question about who leaked a report related to this matter to the Associated Press.

In another matter, Benton was involved in a public feud with Rivers in 2013 that Majority Coalition Caucus leaders investigated and eventually resolved internally. During that fracas, Benton wrote a letter accusing majority coalition leaders of being “retaliatory” against him as well as “cowardly” and “amoral” — eventually getting an investigation into Rivers’ conduct, which quickly and quietly died out.

Last year, Benton filed a complaint with the executive ethics board against Gov. Jay Inslee alleging that Inslee unlawfully involved himself in a labor dispute by removing Washington State Patrol officers as escorts for state grain inspectors at Port of Vancouver’s United Grain Corp.’s export facility in early July. The board dismissed the complaint.

On Monday, Kate Reynolds, executive director of the executive ethics board, attended the hearing, but did not testify and declined to comment afterward.

Despite settling his case, Owen, who has traveled for the state on repeated trade missions, remains disturbed by the findings that his work with children wasn’t considered a proper function. “I am baffled that my international travel can be official,” he said, “but my work with kids is not.”

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

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