Washington’s integrity grade falls to D-plus

Washington’s reputation for ethics and accountability in state government is gathering some tarnish.

In a 50-state report from the Center for Public Integrity, our Evergreen State earned just 67 points, or a D-plus grade, for integrity.

Surely we can do better.

The low grade still puts our state government at No. 12 – near the top for transparency, accountability, ethics and oversight. But it’s a plunge from 2012 when the Evergreen State was No. 3 with a B-minus grade. Alaska is top-ranked this year, earning just a C grade.

The Center for Public Integrity is a national, nonpartisan investigative news organization. It published its state-by-state report on Monday.

There are several reasons for the state’s falling grades.

Underfunding of our state Public Disclosure Commission certainly hurt. So did the timing of the report, which was a snapshot of programs as of March.

As a result, the report does not account for the Legislature – finally – coughing up extra money in late June to improve the PDC’s online software for lobbyist spending reports.

This investment, which came only after advocacy by open-government advocates including this newspaper, should improve the public’s access to details of free meals and other gifts lawmakers get from lobbyists.

But even more funding for the PDC, which regulates spending for political campaigns and lobbying, and a few policy changes could make a difference, too.

Many lower scores were given because there are no audits of financial disclosure forms filed by elected officials and some staffers in the executive and legislative branches; those records also are not published online. New funding this year is letting the PDC resume spot audits soon, and the agency is asking lawmakers next year to require electronic filing for all financial reports.

Washington’s falling grade also reflects the public’s expectations about online access to records, and anecdotal failures to provide public records in a timely way. The center changed its questions since 2012 to help dig into how well states are making data public in downloadable and searchable form.

Washington is actually doing a better job of that – doubling the amount of data posted, according to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office. But the state’s low letter grade reflects the lack of a legal requirement for agencies to post information.

Inslee was honored last month by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for his government transparency efforts, and Rowland Thompson of the Allied Daily Newspapers group called Inslee’s administration the most open he’s worked with.

Although Washington has a “clean” reputation, it hasn’t helped that state Auditor Troy Kelley, a Democrat, was indicted this year on federal financial charges related to his previous work in escrow.

Our former attorney general, Rob McKenna, also got caught up in a New York Times investigation that found ex-AGs nationally were lobbying former colleagues on behalf of corporate clients, which isn’t expressly forbidden in our state. Current AG Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, accepted funds from an organization linked to 5-Hour Energy at a time his office was investigating the firm for deceptive ads; Ferguson returned the money and also filed suit against the company.

McKenna and Ferguson otherwise have long records as champions of open government.

Another irony is that our state gets relatively high marks for having ethics boards – for the Legislature and executive branch. But legislators exempt themselves from the Public Records Act. And the state’s best grade was for internal audits done by Kelley’s agency.

Such irony is great, but we’d rather see more integrity.