Friday, December 23, 2005

What Board of Ethics? Just another facade of enforcement in King County

In addition to specific charges of wrongdoing by KCDOT to help Weyerhaesuer, included with them were several ethical questions asked of King County Ombudsman Amy Calderwood that I requested be asked of the King County Board of Ethics. Calderwood's response was that no investigation of my charges could be performed by her office until these questions of ethics were addressed. As she put it, these questions go "to the very foundational structure of county government, its departments, and its legal obligations."

The basic issues addressed by the Board of Ethics on October 17, 2005 were:

1. Does an agency have a conflict of interest when asked to perform the actual technical analysis for a development application, when the recommendations based on those studies could result in the loss of significant revenues deemed critical to the operation of the department?

2. Is it ethical for a government agency to hire outside private counsel to represent it, whether as plaintiff or defendant, in litigation against other county agencies being defended by the Prosecuting Attorney's Office?

3. Does the Prosecuting Attorney have a conflict of interest in representing two county agencies on opposite sides of the same issue?

In a letter dated October 18, 2005 from the Board of Ethics to Calderwood, BOE Administrator Catherine Clemens stated:
"During the October 17 meeting, the Board of Ethics considered your requests. Following its deliberations - and based on the Code of Ethics, its Procedures for issuing Advisory Opinions, and the fact surrounding the matter - the Board moved to decline to issue an advisory opinion or conduct a review because: 1) the matters are subject to controversy and legal dispute, and 2) advisory opinions are issued to guide future conduct, not current disputes. The motion was approved unanimously."
Following the decision by the Board of Ethics to do nothing, the Ombudsman then dismissed my complaints, partially based on the failure of the Board to rule, and partly on strained logic that has become the standard from the Ombudsman. Among the excuses, paraphrasing now, since the law requires certain agencies to self-fund, like DDES or DOT, then entering into conflicts of interests are okay. Or another one - since the PA's Office technically hires the private counsel to represent other county agencies, then the benefitting agency hasn't violated any ethical standard, even if that private counsel has cost the taxpayers more than a million dollars to defend the agency's alleged wrongdoing.

But above all else, the overriding conclusion I must come to is that ethical behavior in King County is not driven by ethical standards accepted by our society, but by the watered down standards that King County politicians have put into the code. In other words, ethics in King County only goes as far as the politicians allow the law to define them. And in areas where actions are clearly unethical or demonstrate a clear conflict of interest, not even the Board of Ethics will make an advisory opinion to suggest to the politicians that the law is inadequate.

It is not a suprise to me now to learn that the Board had not issued an opinion of any kind since 1999. Weve all come to know now how ethically challenged King County is. One need look no further than the Elections Department and some of the recent decisions made by Dean Logan making it a more and more partisan office. But with a standard of wrongdoing that requires a violation of the county's meaningless Ethics Code, is it any wonder that the Board doesn't/can't rule on anything?

Foll0w-up questions to the Ombudsman after her conclusion was mailed to me have been dismissed out of hand now, with the ombudsman again siting the Ethics Code and its failure to prohibit the conflicts of interests I allege. Those additional questions were:

4. Is it ethical for an agency director to participate in decisions related to a development application where that director is personally being sued in Federal court for allegations of wrongdoing and retaliation against departement whistleblowers who are attempting to expose the wrongdoing committed by that agency related to that specific application?

5. Is it ethical for a government to allow a private traffic consultant hired by a major developer to be responsible for providing traffic data and interpretation of that data when permit conditions would halt the development if certain levels of traffic or conclusions were reached?

Again, these last 2 issues were dismissed out of hand by the ombudsman because the Ethics Code in King County doesn't address these issues. How convenient for a county that ultimately works for special interests and not the people of the county?

But just in case anyone might be left to believe that the county would act if an actual Ethics Code violation occurred, I have evidence that should dismiss that belieft too.

In 1997, then King County Councilman Chris Vance was deposed in a lawsuit alleging his bias in support of a masive Weyerhaeuser development on the Eastside. During the course of that deposition, and to the complete surprise to the plaintiff's lawyers, Vance casually admitted that he had 3 in-laws employed in management by Weyerhaeuser. Under the Ethics Code, in-laws are considered close family members. As employees of Weyerhaeuser, while proof of a direct financial benefit resulting from the approval of this or other Weyerhaeuser projects was arguable, Vance was clearly in violation of the King County Ethics Code by failing to disclose these relatiionships while he was championing this project as head of the Growth Management Committee.

In 1998 I filed an Ethics Complaint against Vance to then King County Ombudsman Duncan Fowler. Fowler had replaced David Krull after Krull had been improperly fired by the County Council in response to some pitiful harassment charges made by current ombudsman Amy Calderwood. Krull would eventually be paid $400,000 for the wrongful termination in a settlement paid with taxpayer dollars, but that's another sad story.

In a nutshell, my complaint against Vance went nowhere. With so much at stake, including the approval of this massive Weyerhaeuser project, the ombudsman excused Vance from the clear disclosure violation finding that I had not proved a direct financial gain to his in-laws resulting from Vance's actions on Weyerhaeuser's behalf. Of course that was a standard impossible to satisfy and an allegation I had not even made. Vance had violated the requirement to disclose the relationship and that could not be excused, by the ombudsman, so he defened Vance from a charge I'd not made. This tactic was witnessed by other enforcement authorities, including the PA and the Sheriff too. Had Vance disclosed the "potential" conflict of interest, he would most assuredly would have been asked to recuse himself years earlier and it would have been poltiically impossible for him to refuse.

Vance now chairs the Washington State Republican Party. He was hand-picked by the growth industry to run and manage the "conservative" party in Washington. Just another sad reality.

Anyway, I'm done. Not just with this post, but with trying to fight the corruption that permeates throughout King County. It's everywhere. As I see it King County is a $3 billion a year special interest machine that pretends to honor the people and law, but in fact, honors only its friends, the growth industries. I've also come to expect this government to ignore the law, ethics, and fairness as part of its daily work. That is the legacy of Ron Sims and Gary Locke before him. That is the festering cesspool that is King County government.

The end!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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