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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 with 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.

Leave a comment Comments → 26
  1. How many other officials traveled with the mayor at taxpayers expense???

  2. auwing1978 says:

    Sorry…this one just does not pass the smell test Mayor. Common sense would dictate that you would have sought a legal opinion from a city attorney before accepting Mr. Chow’s gift. Not cool.

  3. Trying to make this a kerfluffle doesn’t surprise me – sticking it to the taxpayers is the standard response of the entitlement crowd.

    Doing something privately and without cost to the taxpayers terrifies them because it shows that government is not needed for everything. If she gets away with saving taxpayers’ money here, who knows how far she’ll go.

    Maybe all the way to a tea party.

  4. Ms. Mayor, you did personally benefit and shame on you for not taking responsibility for your actions. There is no such thing as a free gift in your position.

  5. “The purpose of my trip is to make business contacts, cultivate relationships”

    “I made some very good connections,”

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

    The “I’s” have it!

    There is no “I” in team…to which Mayor Strickland responds…”there ain’t no T(acoma), either.”

    These are very telling of madam mayor’s reasons for this trip.

  6. nokoolaide says:

    pgroup, the mayor does not get it, and apparantly neither do you. Its a violation of state law, and there is very good reason for it.

  7. I’d say that the mayor must’ve really wanted to visit China.

    It takes no rocket scientist to see that her financing plan was risky with public exposure problems. My issue is that those contacts she makes are hers and not the city of Tacoma’s. I want a report of her contactacts and projected revenue from each relationship that Tacoma can expect over the next 8 quarters, right up until the election ought to do it… Then I want to follow those relationships after she leaves office and be sure that Tacoma gets it fair share of any future business.

    Either that or fund the damn trip. Really.

    With Gary Locke on his way to becoming Ambassador to China and Washington state’s unique position geographically, Tacoma ought to spare no resources in building serious, long term friendships with China. Let’s steer clear (city council this is for you) of any unfunded politically expedient exhibitions of our willingness to do business (yes that pagoda was a bad idea that could’ve funded the mayors trip instead).

    ‘Nuff said. China, I’ll be by to pick you up at 8pm Friday night. Dress nice. Love, Washington State.

  8. Soundlife says:

    But will she get away with it or face legal penalties now?
    And MR Chow will obviously expect her to help him in any of his future business adventures…

  9. Mayors and council have said for 30 years that they have made valuble business contacts — “some good connections” — for Tacoma on their trips. Maybe. How many jobs today after 30 years of trips?

    Campbell has been accused of violating the council executive session rules.

    Jake Fey and the rest violated the open meetings act to select Boe and Mello to the council.

    This shows why the council and manager do not want to grant more power to the City ethics commission.

  10. aranciata says:

    This is not even a close call. Of course it did violate ethics rules, but what else is new at City Hall. In Tacoma the rules only apply to the peons.

    Ever wonder what that cockamamie angle parking located on opposite sides of two adjacent blocks of N Proctor came about? IMHO that was Bill Evans endeavor to increase on street parking within a radius of his proposed mixed-use development so as to allow him to get a waiver from having top provide the required on-site parking as part of his scheme.

  11. PolarBear53 says:

    Good Lord people complain about anything these days. Had she went and billed he city. People would have complained about that too. Thanks Strickland for not billing us the flight.

  12. Alison7613 says:

    I would like to see more business development coming from anywhere so I really have no issue with this action taken by the Mayor. So she used some frequent flier miles donated to her and spent her own money.

    What I do take issue with is city councilman Campbell running people out of town stating they don’t know “The Tacoma Way.” (Facebook, two weeks ago)

    At least our Mayor has been outside the United States. Global vision is what the city needs. I like and support our Mayor.

  13. the3rdpigshouse says:

    And we all know that there will be no quid-pro-quo involved in this little arrangement – right??!! If this does not wreak with unetical conduct, the city employees now have an opportunity to travel on every businessman’s mileage card and will of course offer nothing in return!! Impeach this corrupt mayor and elect an individual possessing a modicum of common sense and ethics!!!

  14. t_Johnson says:

    Who cares whether she’s corrupt or not. We voted for her and until she runs again let’s support her. We should be lifting the tax burden for business so they can go to China and not sending politicians especially those that know nothing of commerce.

  15. Dear Alison:

    Please be more specific, like with a link, on where the “Tacoma Way” or Tacoma Method” phrase is used and who used it.

  16. the3rdpigshouse says:

    t-johnson, you are absolutely correct – Washington’s (and in particular Tacoma’s) ignorant electorate has once again put a corrupt and incompetent individual in political office!!! I guess they were trying to mimic the national trend of the broader “ignorant electorate”!! Hmmm, Hmmm, Hmmm – Barack Hussein OH-Bummer!!

    I sure hope folks wake up and do a little research before 2012!!

  17. Neo voted for Jim Merritt. It’s not that the electorate is ignorant, it’s that it has a short term memory problem.

  18. Lewis,

    Glad to oblige!

    Check with City Clerk Doris Sorum as I have filed the ethics complaint you asked for. This is the only way to find out if a public official has violated the city’s ethics code per City of Tacoma PIO Rob McNair-Huff.

    John Hathaway
    The New Takhoman

  19. CeeCeeDD says:

    I want to give the Mayor more of an opportunity to respond.

    This may have been an honest mistake; clearly, in this economic climate, public officials are very conscious about political junkets. Yes, she should have consulted a city attorney, but I think she’s done a good job so far and will listen to her response before I decide her actions were malfeasance.

  20. PumainTacoma says:


    The Mayor says: “Strickland said Monday that 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.”

    Hello??? If a Federal employee did this they’d be sanctioned and fined.

    Marilyn Strickland violated the ETHICS code period. She took essentially a gift (appearance of impropriety) in EXCHANGE for a trip. If that is not a gift what is?

    Every Corporation in America has ETHICS laws and note the federal law.


    “Anything of Value”
    The term “anything of value” is not defined in the FCPA nor is the statute’s legislative history illuminating. The term, however, has been broadly construed and can include not only cash or a cash equivalent, but also, among other things, discounts; gifts; use of materials, facilities or equipment; entertainment; drinks; meals; transportation; lodging; insurance benefits; and promise of future employment. There is no de minimis value associated with the “anything of value” element, and the perception of the recipient and the subjective valuation of the thing conveyed is often a key factor considered by the enforcement agencies in determining whether “anything of value” has been given to a foreign official.

    Mayor Strickland’s apparent reluctance to adhere to ETHICS is troubling and appaulling. She needs to go.

  21. PumainTacoma says:

    CHECK OUT THE Public Disclosure Commission Campaign Contribution link:

    Breaking news:
    Ron Chow gave Mayor Strickland $500+ on 2/3/2010…..
    Ron Chow gave Mayor Strickland $250+ on 9/16/2009…

    TIT FOR TAT… Absolutely….

    CLEAR ETHICS VIOLATION MARILYN!!!!! When will you step down?

  22. ratujack says:

    Un-believable. They get caught…then to make it worse…. they start to lie. She had a cousin in Soeul Korea that she has not seen in years. Soeul Korea was her birth place.

    Why do we let our poloticians get away with this. WRONG is wrong.

    The boundary and size of Tacoma is very small. The foot print is just a small fraction of other cities…..thus we do not have any political talent to choose from. Fife,Fircrest,University Place,Gig Harbor, Lakewood ,Puyallup, Parkland, ad-infinitum are not qualified to run for office in Tacoma. Our political talent pool is tiny. Mainly Hill Top and East End.

  23. Lewis Kamb says:

    Takhoman/John — Just to set the record straight: I did not ask you to file a complaint, nor did I speak to you about this story at any time prior to its publication.

    TheMASO — To answer your question. No other city employees traveled with the mayor to Asia.

  24. PumainTacoma says:


    # 18 USC Section 201 applies to all elected and non-elected officials who work in the U.S. government . Under this law, any promise or donation of a thing of value to such a figure to influence the performance of their official duties is punishable by a fine of up to three times the amount of the bribe and imprisonment of up to 15 years. This law also applies to former public officials and those who have been nominated but not yet appointed.

    ……Multiple statutes cover kickbacks in the area of federal officials and programs but there are also laws prohibiting bribing representatives of foreign governments. When doing business with government officials of any nation….

    **Dear Mayor Strickland

    Meeting with business leaders who paid your way and have influence with foreign government officials after you received money for your campaign reeks of illegal foreign corruption act, anti-kick back laws….

    Did they not teach you this while employed as a so called manager at Starbucks?????

    Corporations and Federal officials abide by these laws every single day and yet you say you have business experience and yet violate codes of Ethic and the #1 topic in any well known business school “Business Law.”

    Either you do not have an MBA or you knowingly took kick-backs, tit for tat, favors.

    Which is it?

  25. olympicmtn says:

    It is disturbing to read that Chow primarily has a foreign government business interest. Is he working directly or indirectly for Chinese aerospace or a foreign official? If so payment of any gift of any value is illegal per se. What is Chow’s connection to Chinese government officials ? Anti corruption laws were enacted for such reasons.

  26. You are correct Lewis,

    You did not ask me to file a complaint, nor did you speak to me about this story at any time prior to its publication.

    You wrote,”If a complaint is filed, the ethics board will review it to determine if an investigation is justified.”

    So I filed the complaint.

    Simple enough.

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