Politics & Government

Ethics board reverses revolving-door ruling

An ethics agency has reached a different conclusion than auditors did last year about whether a former state manager ran afoul of Washington’s revolving-door restrictions.

Henry Richards will not be fined. The Executive Ethics Board ruled in February that Richards, the former superintendent of the Special Commitment Center, did not violate ethics laws.

Former state employees who had authority over contracts in their last two years on the state payroll cannot work on those contracts in the first year after leaving.

But Richards never left the state payroll during that first year, according to Melanie de Leon, the ethics board’s director until recently. The revolving-door law didn’t apply.

In May 2009, Richards left the Special Commitment Center, the lockup on McNeil Island for civilly committed sex offenders. There he had supervised the manager responsible for negotiating contracts with consultants and researchers, including contracts with the University of Washington and a standard contract for independent psychologists.

After a brief stint as a Western State Hospital psychologist, Richards took a part-time faculty job at the University of Washington working on a research contract with the commitment center. UW paid him $21,000 over nine months in 2009 and 2010, auditors wrote. At the same time, he consulted as one of the independent psychologists.

A whistleblower complained. State Auditor Brian Sonntag and then his successor, Troy Kelley, investigated. Auditors called the work improper, citing the revolving-door law.

They forwarded their findings to the ethics board, where de Leon dismissed the case.

De Leon didn’t directly address another issue raised by auditors involving the commitment center’s spending tied to a professional group Richards chaired while leading the center.

Richards said auditors didn’t interview or even notify him until just before the audit was published. He noticed his business relationships going sour without knowing why, he said.

“They investigated me for over three years,” said Richards, a Seattle resident and member of the UW clinical faculty but no longer in a paid status. “The only way I can describe it is, pretend you’re living in a (Franz) Kafka short story.”

Auditor’s office spokesman Thomas Shapley said he wouldn’t second-guess the auditors’ decision about the appropriate time to contact the subject of an investigation.

Richards said he plans to file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office. That’s the avenue for people blowing the whistle on the State Auditor’s Office, itself normally the agency that takes whistleblower complaints. The whistleblower program is for state employees to report wrongdoing.

“We were obligated to investigate, which we did,” Shapley said. “We came to our conclusions, but we respect the (Executive Ethics Board’s) decision.”

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader @thenewstribune.com