Attorney General Bob Ferguson has two legislative proposals this year that can remove recent tarnish from Washington state government’s once sterling reputation for integrity and ethics in government.
The Center for Public Integrity, a non-partisan organization that grades states for ethics, gave Washington a D-plus grade this year, down from past years.
Washington has already taken steps to improve its grade. Last year, the Legislature provided funding for a searchable lobbyist database for the state Public Disclosure Commission, which regulates campaign and lobbying spending. But that funding to dramatically improve public access to lobbyist spending details came after the center’s report period ended in March.
Ferguson’s proposals tighten the ethics rules and could raise the state’s grade.
COOLING OFF PERIOD FOR LOBBYISTS – Ferguson notes ruefully that today a top state official can leave his or her job on Friday and go to work as a lobbyist seeking to influence state policy the following Monday.
The only limitation is that they can’t immediately lobby or work for an organization that received state grants or contracts over which they exercised influence or authority. But House Bill 1136, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Reuven Carlyle of Seattle, goes beyond that. It bars high-ranking officials from serving as a paid lobbyist or advocate for a private interest for one year after they leave state service.
Carlyle’s bans covers any lobbying by state agency directors, legislators, and key advisers to lawmakers and agency heads. There are other agency-specific prohibitions against influencing their former employers, also for a year.
A New York Times investigation more than a year ago found that former attorneys general across the country were using their influence on behalf of clients. Our own former AG, Rob McKenna, was one of those who did work on behalf of clients by contacting his former employers – in this case, Ferguson, and on behalf of Washington-based T-Mobile – after leaving office in January 2013.
Ferguson’s name also came up in those news reports because of campaign donations he’d solicited from a company linked to 5-Hour Energy, which his office was investigating. Ferguson gave back the money and his office went on to prosecute the energy drink company.
What McKenna did was not deemed unethical or wrong under current statutes. But it is the kind of action that can raise public doubts – just as Ferguson’s initial acceptance of campaign contributions did.
OPEN MEETINGS ACT PENALTIES – The other bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Sam Hunt of Olympia, seeks to raise the maximum penalty to $500, up from $100, for a first violation of the Open Public Meetings Act.
Ferguson said the fine is the same today as in 1971, when the statute was set. He said repeat offenders face the same maximum penalty of $100. HB 2353 would raise the maximum for repeat offenses to $1,000.
Republican Sen. Pam Roach of Auburn has a companion bill, SB 6171.
Either measure would do the trick. Other lawmakers need to join Roach and Hunt, who are pushing for the same legislation despite any party differences, to get this passed.