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Improve transparency, restore trust in state government
Originally published January 26, 2016
Improvements to state ethics rules are needed and shouldn’t die quietly in legislative committee.
By Seattle Times editorial board
WASHINGTON has been highly regarded for the integrity of its state government, but that reputation is slipping.
Even before questions arose about the state Department of Corrections scandal and state employees taking jobs at state-funded startups, The Center for Public Integrity lowered the state’s grade from a B-minus to a D-plus.
Reversing this trend should be a top priority of elected officials, especially those concerned about accountability, fiscal discipline and moral character.
Yet lawmakers in Olympia are — for the second year in a row — stifling efforts to strengthen state ethics rules.
A proposal championed by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, would expand the “cooling-off” period that prevents high-ranking state officials and lawmakers from leaving office and promptly going to work for companies that lobby or contract with the state.
Their effort was prompted in part by revelations that Ferguson’s predecessor, Rob McKenna, was successfully lobbying the Attorney General’s Office for clients Microsoft and T-Mobile.
An equally strong argument for the cooling-off period is the troubling pattern of top state transportation officials taking jobs at Parsons Brinckerhoff, the giant engineering firm and beneficiary of megaprojects, such as Sound Transit’s and the Highway 99 tunnel debacle. The former state transportation chief, Paula Hammond, and the state’s former lead on the viaduct-replacement project, Ron Paananen, both took jobs at Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Ethics rule changes introduced by Carlyle in SB 6258 would require elected officials and senior state employees to wait one to two years before they could lobby or contract with the state. It would also require ongoing public disclosure of their employers if they engage with the state.
That’s just a start to improving transparency, restoring trust and rebuilding Washington’s reputation for public integrity.
Lawmakers should consider broadening cooling-off rules to apply to less senior employees. They also need to close ethics policy gaps that enabled several Department of Commerce employees to join a clean-energy startup funded partly by state grants.
Yet just the modest fixes called for by SB 6258 appear to be withering away in the Senate Government Operations and Security Committee. The bill deserves a public hearing and vote so the public knows where its representatives stand on this issue — before any of them cash in on their government expertise and contacts.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Brier Dudley, Mark Higgins, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).