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Did Tacoma mayor’s trip to Asia violate ethics rules?

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on March 8, 2011 at 4:21 pm | 26 Comments »
March 8, 2011 7:28 pm

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland says she was simply trying to avoid sticking the city with a bill for her recent travels abroad.

But by letting a Lakewood businessman cover her airfare, the mayor may have broken the city ethics code – and possibly state law.

Strickland, who returned Sunday from a 10-day trip to three Asian cities while on official city business, accepted businessman Ron Chow’s frequent flyer miles to cover her round-trip airfare costs.

Tacoma’s ethics code prohibits city officials from accepting gifts valued at more than $50 “for a matter connected with or related to the City official’s services with the City of Tacoma.”

Washington law also bars municipal officers from giving or taking “any compensation, gift, reward, or gratuity from a source except the employing municipality, for a matter connected with or related to the officer’s services as such an officer unless otherwise provided for by law.”

The travel web site, expedia.com, shows airfare costs for a similar 10-day trip from Sea-Tac Airport to the same destinations in South Korea and China that Strickland went to priced at $3,251.

Strickland said Monday she doesn’t see a potential ethics problem, saying the trip was taken for official city business.

“I didn’t get any personal gain or benefit out of it,” she said.

In the days before the mayor left on Feb. 24, she responded by phone and e-mail to a reporter’s questions about the trip’s costs, saying the city would incur no expenses.

“Ron Chow is using frequent flyer miles for my airfare,” Strickland wrote in one e-mail. “He travels to China regularly and is a member of the million mile club. … I am paying for lodging and incidentals.”

Chow did not return a phone call for comment Tuesday.

A city spokesman recently said that Chow, who met Strickland on part of the trip, has shown interest in expanding Asian business opportunities in Tacoma.

During an interview Monday, Strickland acknowledged that, before taking her trip, she did not research the airfare issue or check with the city attorney as to whether Chow’s gesture constituted a breach of city ethics rules.

“I didn’t have anyone look at it,” Strickland said.

Rather, the mayor said flying on Chow’s miles was her way of relieving the city from having to pay.

“For the past year or so, I had offers and opportunities to go to Asia on city business, but never took advantage of that because the city’s budget situation hasn’t been good,” she said. “So, I tried to find a way to get over there and avoid having those expenses costing the city anything.”

Asked if, given the city code’s prohibition on gifts, she can now see the potential for an ethics violation, Strickland said: “I don’t think it is.”

“There’s no financial benefit for me,” she added. “I’m going over there trying to build relationships and create some opportunities for business in Tacoma.”

One municipal ethics watchdog says such a situation likely would present issues in his city.
When described a scenario Monday in which a public official had her airfare covered by a businessman’s frequent flyer miles, Wayne Barnett, executive director of Seattle’s Ethics and Elections Commission, responded: “I think that would be a problem.”

“Just off the top of my head, it sounds to me like a gift over $50,” added Barnett, whose agency is Seattle’s equivalent to Tacoma’s Board of Ethics.

Similar to Tacoma’s ordinance, Seattle’s ethics code bars city employees and officials from giving or taking gifts, favors or other items of monetary value. Seattle’s code further defines that banned gifts must appear to a reasonable person “to have been solicited, received or given with intent to give or obtain special consideration or influence to any action by the (employee or official) in his or her official capacity.”

Strickland has described her recent travels, which included stops in Seoul, South Korea, Shanghai and Fuzhou, China, as an official trip meant to promote business opportunities and events in Tacoma, including the 2015 U.S. Open golf championships at nearby Chambers Bay.

“The purpose of my trip is to make business contacts, cultivate relationships and promote Tacoma as a good place to invest,” she wrote in an e-mail before the trip.

Strickland also noted she planned to reconnect with a cousin who lives in Seoul. The trip was Strickland’s first to Seoul – her birth city – since her toddler years, when her family moved to America, she said.

On Monday, Strickland called the trip a success.

“I made some very good connections,” she said. “Hopefully, we can attract some private business to benefit Tacoma.”

In Korea, Strickland said she met with business and women’s leadership groups, and in Shanghai, she toured the state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, a leading manufacturer of combustion jet engines. Chow set up some of the meetings, Strickland said.

“I met up with him in Shanghai,” she said. “He has the business connections.”

Chow, co-founder and president of Seattle Pacific Trading and Retail Restaurant Development, has clients that include Ivar’s Seafood, Schuck’s Auto Supply and the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, among others.

A member of various community organizations, including the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, Chow formerly served on Gov. Chris Gregoire’s Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs and has organized past trade delegations to China for several politicians, including Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed.

Chow also is a big political campaign donor. He has contributed more than $11,500 to local and state candidates and $15,700 to federal candidates since 2002, campaign finance records show.

Chow has given Strickland two donations – $500 on Feb. 3, 2010, and $250 on Sept. 16, 2009, records show.

No formal complaint has been filed with the city’s Board of Ethics against Strickland or any city official in the last month, the city clerk’s office said Monday.

If a complaint is filed, the ethics board would review it to determine if an investigation is justified. The board could take up the case and later issue findings and recommendations to the City Council, which in turn could determine what, if any punishment – such as verbal admonishment or removal from committee assignments – is warranted.

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