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Ethics probe of Tacoma coordinator tied to firm in Seattle schools’ scandal starts tomorrow

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on March 3, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
March 3, 2011 5:28 pm

An outside investigator working for the City of Tacoma will start an ethics probe of Percy F. Jones on Friday, a city spokesman said today.

Spokesman Rob McNair-Huff said he did not have further details about who will lead the investigation or how much the city will pay for it.  The city is still finalizing contract details, which should be available sometime Friday, he said.

The probe of Jones, the longtime coordinator of Tacoma’s Historically Underutilized Businesses Program, seeks to determine if he broke ethics rules based on his involvement with the Regional Small Business Development Program, or RSBDP. 

(We had this detailed report on the matter in today’s paper.)

The small business contracting program, which started under the Seattle School District and later became a nonprofit, offered training and other assistance to minority- and women-owned contractors seeking government contracts.

The program, run by former Seattle schools employee Silas Potter, has come under fire after a state audit and a private Seattle schools investigation found it misspent about $1.8 million in public funds on businesses and consultants that provided little or no public benefit for their services. On Wednesday, the scandal led to the firing of Seattle schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson and Chief Financial Officer Don Kennedy.

Jones, who is not implicated in either the audit or investigation, volunteered as a training instructor for the program and later, when it privatized as a nonprofit, served as a registered agent and treasurer for it.

“I don’t have anything to withhold,” Jones said. “I know my intent has not been criminal in any shape, form or fashion … I have always tried to be the best public employee I can be.”

In an interview this week with the TNT, he denied any wrongdoing. He added he never asked permission to work with the RSBDP from city supervisors because he wasn’t being compensated and didn’t see how it conflicted with his city job.

After news of the Seattle schools scandal broke and the city became aware of Jones’ connections to the RSBPD,  the city opted to hire an outside investigator “because it’s cleaner,” McNair-Huff said.

“…There can be no accusations of bias,” he said. “We want to have a clean objective review of the facts.”

Tacoma’s ethics code states city employees are prohibited from engaging in private employment or rendering of professional services “when such employment or service is incompatible with the proper discharge of official duties or would tend to impair independence of judgment or action in the performance of official duties.”

Other outside employment is allowed, McNair-Huff said, “but typically the employee’s supervisor would need to approve that.”

Jones maintains he didn’t need to get permission.

“I have never asked to be compensated for anything,” Jones said. “I didn’t believe it was a conflict of interest that was impairing my ability to conduct city business.”

He added that since the scandal broke in the media, Jones has talked to his supervisor.

“As far as I’ve been told, this is outside business,” he said. “So far, what I have done has not been a conflict of interest with the City of Tacoma.”

But Jones added he understands the need for an investigation.

“The city has to do what it has to do,” he said. “…Let the chips fall where they may.”

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