State lawmakers are considering a proposal to merge the state's Executive Ethics Board with campaign finance regulators.
Despite the protestations of Democratic Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, that he isn’t trying to water down or weaken the Executive Ethics Board, we fear that’s precisely what will happen.
Hudgins is a relative newcomer to the Legislature, having served since January 2003. He wasn’t around in the early 1990s when the legislative and executive ethics boards were formed in response to a political scandal that rocked the state Capitol Campus.
It’s appropriate to remind Hudgins and other lawmakers why ethics boards were put in place to investigate complaints about state workers and elected officials’ blatant misuse of state resources and conflicts of interest.
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In the early 1990s leaders of the House and Senate were at war to gain majorities in the House and Senate. It was a time when Republicans and Democrats each had experience with majorities and lawmakers quickly learned that it’s a lot more fun to sit on the majority side of the aisle.
The stakes for legislative control and power were so high, lawmakers found it easy to cross the line between legal and illegal acts.
There is, and has been, a prohibition against using state employees or state equipment for campaign purposes. With each passing election, violations increased until the lid came off in the early 1990s.
Reporters from The Olympian uncovered widespread political campaigning from state legislative offices using Democrat and Republican caucus employees.
They were recruiting candidates.
They were setting up fundraising events such as the Senate Democrats annual clambake.
They were writing campaign brochures and political advertisements.
They were using legislative phones to call voters and urge votes in favor of their chosen candidates.
They were using those same phones to raise campaign cash.
They were dismissing employees who refused to do the illegal campaign work on state time.
The abuses were flagrant. It took this newspaper and the light of day to highlight the fact that millions of dollars were being spent illegally by the Democrat and Republican caucuses.
Even a half-hearted investigation by the state Public Disclosure Commission confirmed the news accounts of political wrongdoing. The PDC issued fines totaling $400,000 – evenly split between House and Senate Democrat and Republican caucuses. At that time, it was the largest fine in PDC history.
Additionally, a handful of Democrat and Republican caucus employees were fined up to $1,500. But all kept their jobs. One of the first acts of newly elected Attorney General Chris Gregoire was to give legislative leaders a pass on criminal wrongdoing charges, much as her predecessor, Republican Ken Eikenberry had done.
It was a low point in this state’s political history.
But one of the positive outgrowths of the scandal was the creation of legislative and executive ethics panels to investigate future complaints of wrongdoing.
Now Rep. Hudgins believes the Executive Ethics Board’s handful of staff members and nearly $1 million two-year budget can be better deployed inside the Public Disclosure Commission, which already investigates campaign-finance irregularities.
“We’re just trying to save money,” he said. “These days, we’re looking to save anything we can.”
We understand that. But how high a priority will ethic violations be with the disclosure commission which is primarily focused on campaign reporting and financial disclosure?
And don’t think for a minute that once the Executive Ethics Board is absorbed by the Public Disclosure Commission, that the Legislative Ethics Board – the one that keeps lawmakers in line – won’t be next.
Hudgins, who chairs the House General Government Appropriations and Oversight Committee, admits there is interest in reducing costs of the Legislative Ethics Board – which has just one paid staffer who sometimes hires outside investigators.
Hudgins claims lawmakers need and want that board’s accountability but also want to reduce costs.
Our suggestion is that both boards be funded at some percentage of the Legislature’s own budget – or perhaps by cutting the publicly-paid, partisan caucus staff.
With majority control of the House and Senate comes incredible power over the future of the state. Given the history of abuse and given the fact that House Speaker Frank Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown have proven that they will bend the rules to expedite passage of key legislation, it’s important to have independent eyes keeping a close eye on the politicians and their partisan staff members.
The ethic boards need their independence – even in the face of a financial crisis.