Politics & Government

State ethics panel faces ax

The latest target of budget cuts is the agency that keeps an eye on state employees' ethics.

The House budget committee voted Friday to cut off funding for the Executive Ethics Board, whose mission is to instruct state workers on ethics rules and investigate when they’re suspected of breaking those rules.

Mostly, it checks out whether state employees have misused public resources, often by using government computers for their personal business, and hands out fines of a few hundred or thousand dollars.

Rep. Jeannie Darneille, a Tacoma Democrat who suggested the cut, said supervisors can police their employees just fine without an outside agency.

“I just don’t think we need to spend a million dollars to find out somebody has gone on Facebook on their computers,” Darneille said.

That’s how much is spent every two years. The $492,000 per year comes from legal-services fees paid by state agencies. Darneille, who chairs the budget subcommittee that has been scouring government for savings to fill a $2.8 billion shortfall, sees the board as unproductive and lacking in major results.

The five-member board appointed by the governor meets just six times a year, which officials there blame on budget cuts. The board opened 67 new cases last year, closed 30 and fined 11 state workers.

One former Department of Ecology worker was fined $250 for going to work for a contractor on a project she had worked on as a state employee. More typical is a Pierce College worker found to have looked at adult content and sent risque e-mails on a work computer. The employee was fined $5,000.

Eliminating the board would end enforcement of the ethics act passed by the Legislature in 1994, said Janelle Guthrie, spokeswoman for Attorney General Rob McKenna, whose agency provides the staff for the board.

“We think that’s counter to the goals of transparency and accountability in government,” Guthrie said.

The House Ways and Means Committee approved cutting off the funding over concerns by Republicans including Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County that it “sends the wrong message.”

Rep. Larry Seaquist, a Gig Harbor Democrat, replied that eliminating the board would actually improve ethical compliance by keeping supervisors from passing the buck to the ethics board on hard decisions.

Lawmakers created the board, along with a legislative ethics board that is not being proposed for cuts, in 1995 in response to a political scandal involving illegal campaigning at taxpayer expense.

Since then, some prominent officials have been caught in ethics violations, including former state Treasurer Mike Murphy for sending campaign-related e-mails from his home to state offices and former University of Washington football coach Keith Gilbertson after a booster gave his children a free flight to a road game.

Mostly, though, board member Neil Gorrell said, the board tries to head off ethics violations before they start. State employees must take training on the board’s Web site, and they can ask the agency before they do something they’re not sure follows the rules.

“I just think ethics is one of those things the state needs to prioritize,” Gorrell said.

Shawn Newman, an Olympia lawyer who led a group trying to clean up state government in the 1990s, won’t shed many tears if the board that his work helped create disappears. Newman has filed complaints against former UW football coaches, and said the board didn’t keep him updated and didn’t end up issuing serious punishment.

“I would hope it doesn’t open up a green light to people to abuse the law,” Newman said of cutting the board, “but the question is, How effective is it anyway?”

COMMITTEE PASSES BUDGET

The House budget committee approved a budget Friday that includes roughly $650 million in new cuts to state services and agencies, which would require $850 million in tax increases that House Democrats have not yet detailed. The committee made some cuts to the budget Democratic leaders unveiled earlier in the week, while adding small amounts of new spending, such as $50,000 that Darneille proposed to help increase production at Voight Creek Fish Hatchery in Orting.

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