For the second straight year, the state Senate is refusing to give its stamp of approval to Bernie Warner as corrections secretary.
It’s an example of how senators sometimes express frustrations or opposition by bottling up an appointment — in this case, as a protest by Lakewood Republican Mike Carrell over Warner’s refusal to fire an official. It is purely symbolic, unlike at the federal level where the U.S. Senate blocks countless presidential picks from taking office.
In Olympia, governors’ appointees serve unless the Senate actually votes to reject them, which is so rare that longtime staffer and deputy Senate secretary Brad Hendrickson doesn’t recall it happening in 15 years.
That would mean the last rejection of a gubernatorial appointment dates to 1998, when the Senate voted 26-22 to remove former U.S. Rep. Jolene Unsoeld from the state Fish and Wildlife Commission in a dispute over salmon policy. She had served for two and a half years without confirmation after appointments by Govs. Mike Lowry and Gary Locke.
Even with the Senate in Republican hands for the first time in years — they allied with two breakaway Democrats to claim the majority — no one is publicly threatening to try to defeat any of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s choices.
“There are some of the appointments that members of the Senate are saying: ‘Really? That’s the right choice?’ But it’s whether it rises to that standard of ‘defeat,’ and I don’t know of anybody who has risen to that threshold,” Puyallup Republican Sen. Bruce Dammeier said.
Another GOP senator, Michael Baumgartner of Spokane, had some pointed questions during a confirmation hearing for another appointee, Commerce Director Brian Bonlender. Baumgartner said Friday that he’s concerned about whether Bonlender is qualified for the economic-development post but didn’t outright declare opposition, saying he needs to learn more.
Bonlender said he would be surprised if his appointment were in jeopardy, despite Baumgartner’s criticism of his mostly public-sector and political background working for Inslee’s campaign and congressional office.
Bonlender countered that he spent much of that time helping Washington industries. Separately, he cited understanding of business gleaned from a job as a consultant for companies wanting help complying with government regulations, and from watching his parents run a tool dealership and sandwich shops.
An appointment by former Gov. Chris Gregoire of former Puyallup mayor Kathy Turner to the Public Disclosure Commission is moving along despite opposition from the city’s current mayor and deputy mayor. Her appointment passed a committee with unanimous support last week. Dammeier said he understands the concerns but hasn’t seen anything that would cause his opposition. Some Inslee appointees also have sailed through committee, including Social and Health Services Secretary Kevin Quigley. Some have gone on to clear the full Senate, including Bret Daugherty at the Military Department and Alfie Alvarado-Ramos at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The hold on Warner’s confirmation arises from a dispute over a staffing decision. Carrell last year wanted Warner to fire former communications and outreach director Belinda Stewart during an ethics investigation, and repeated his call this year after an ethics board fined Stewart $13,400, which she has appealed.
Warner, who was appointed by former Gov. Chris Gregoire in 2011 and reappointed by Gov. Jay Inslee this year, last week said he has reprimanded Stewart but won’t fire her.
Carrell, who is absent from the Legislature because of an illness, wrote on his website that Warner’s “confirmation depends on Belinda’s termination.”
“Management must be held to the same standard as front-line employees and the department must rid itself of the double standard that currently exists,” Carrell said, saying a rank-and-file employee with multiple reprimands would be more likely to be fired.
Warner outlined steps he’s taken to address ethics and Stewart’s case since taking over the Corrections Department in 2011:
• Reassigned Stewart to a lower-paying job dealing with prison visitation, volunteers and matters of gender and religion. Her salary dropped from $98,940 to $82,284, Warner said.
• Canceled agency policies that allowed employees to work on behalf of three nonprofits, including two tied to Stewart. The ethics board cleared her of using state resources on those groups, work that had been approved by former Secretary Eldon Vail.
• Revised the agency’s ethics policies with approval from the board.
• Brought the ethics board in for training of top officials.
“What I told the senator is I certainly share his expectations in having the highest standards of ethics and accountability for state employees,” Warner said.
Warner said he reprimanded Stewart partly because of the board’s finding that she had 576 items stored in an email folder on her work computer that were related to her outside employment with a federal agency. Stewart was paid $2,800 a year to teach a “new warden” class for the National Institute of Corrections while on leave from her state job.
Carrell did his own sleuthing into Stewart’s case based on tips from Corrections employees. He complained that too much of the ethics case that followed was turned over to Stewart’s allies at Corrections; that unnamed whistle blowers faced retaliation; and that top officials who had sanctioned Stewart’s work escaped without consequences.
That led him to propose an overhaul of state ethics law this year, including new penalties for supervisors who acquiesce in ethics violations or retaliate against whistle-blowers.
His measure passed the Senate 47-0 but then picked up scrutiny from Inslee’s budget office, which has several criticisms – including that it would encourage separate investigations by elected officials by protecting details of such independent probes from public disclosure.
In testimony on the measure last week, a newspaper lobbyist agreed that’s not the proper role of politicians. “You’d be out there in a sort of ‘Columbo’-esque way trying to figure out what happened,” Rowland Thompson told lawmakers.
“I do have an old raincoat,” joked the committee chairman, Rep. Sam Hunt. Hunt, D-Olympia, who said he hoped to advance the bill but only after a rewrite. “It’s going to take a lot of work,” he said.blog.thenewstribune.com/politics