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Tacoma mayor says she’ll reimburse businessman; Chow says gesture was allowed

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on March 11, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
March 11, 2011 4:54 pm

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland said Thursday she will reimburse a Lakewood businessman who covered her airfare costs for a recent trip to Asia, according to an editorial in today’s News Tribune.

The editorial, written by Cheryl Tucker, notes:

Strickland now says that “in hindsight,” she shouldn’t have accepted Chow’s gift without consulting the city attorney, and that she plans to write him a check for the value of the airfare.

In a brief phone call today, Strickland declined to elaborate, citing an ongoing ethics process.

“Since there has been an ethics complaint filed, I am not going to make any more statements to the press until this is resolved,” she said.

Meanwhile, Ron Chow, the businessman who used his frequent flier miles for Strickland’s travel, said Thursday his gesture is allowed under the city’s code.

“It’s not a gift,” Chow said. “If I give it to her for personal (benefit), that is unethical. But we’re doing it because the city has no money, it is short on cash. And she is doing this (trip) on the official capacity of the city. There’s nothing unethical about it. I sponsor so many trips for any level of politicians.”

“I’m a little bit disappointed in you,” Chow added to a reporter. “As a journalist, you are the one that’s unethical.”

Earlier this week, The News Tribune reported the mayor’s use of Chow’s frequent flier miles to cover her airfare for an official city trip to Asia may have violated ethics rules.

Tacoma’s ethics code and Washington state law both broadly prohibit city officials from giving or receiving gifts of value in connection with official city business.

Following publication of the story, local gadfly/internet publisher John Hathaway filed an ethics complaint against the mayor. The city’s board of ethics is set to meet on March 24 to review the complaint and determine if further investigation is warranted.

Strickland has said she took the 10-day trip to Seoul, South Korea, and Shanghai and Fuzhou, China to cultivate relationships in hopes of drawing business to the Tacoma area. Strickland, who was born in Seoul but moved to America as a small child, also said she planned to reconnect with a cousin while there.

Before taking her trip, she told a reporter that she used the frequent flier miles of Chow – an international businessman with several area corporate clients – to avoid sticking the city with a bill for her travel expenses.

“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 Monday. “So, I tried to find a way to get over there and avoid having those expenses costing the city anything.”

Reached by phone Thursday, Chow — who met Strickland during her trip and set up several business meetings for the mayor in Shanghai — said Strickland did nothing unethical. He noted that he has sponsored a number of politicians on similar trips.

Asked if he had been informed by the mayor that she would reimburse him, Chow said he had just returned from China a few hours earlier and had not been in touch with Strickland — other than to send her “a very simple message: I’m sorry this happened.”

“I don’t see any big fuss about this story whatsoever,” Chow said. “And I don’t have much to say to you. I don’t want to sit here and have to explain or justify to you my actions. She didn’t do anything wrong.”

Asked why he believed his gesture was permitted, Chow responded: “Are you kidding me? You’re asking me for comment without even reading the code?”

He then read aloud part of the city ethics code that provides a definition for “gift” to exclude:

“any reasonable hosting, including travel expenses, entertainment, meals, or refreshments furnished in connection with appearances, ceremonies, and occasions reasonably relating to official City business, where otherwise permitted by law.”

“For you to have this type of article,” Chow added, “you create a lot of turmoil that is unnecessary.”

The definitions section of the city’s ethics code that Chow referenced does not specifically identify what is meant by “reasonable” travel expenses, or what qualifies as a hosted event (Chow met and accompanied Strickland on only part of her three-city trip — in Shanghai, the mayor has said).

The part of the code that appears applicable in determining whether or not Chow’s gesture to Strickland is allowed — 1.46.030 (K) — not only bars city officials from accepting “gifts,” but also “compensation,” “favors,” “rewards” or “gratuity…”.

Like with the term “gift,” the code’s definitions section further defines what “compensation” means, identifying it as a “payment in any form for real or personal property or services of any kind.” The code does not provide further definition for the terms “favors,” “rewards” or “gratuity.”

State law provides separate gift prohibitions for state officials and municipal officials. State law also specifically defines a list of exemptions for gifts to state officials, citing that expenses related to trade missions “are presumed not to influence … and may be accepted…”

“Payments by a governmental or nongovernmental entity of reasonable expenses incurred in connection with a speech, presentation, appearance, or trade mission made in an official capacity,” that exemption states.

But while the Revised Code of Washington chapter on “ethics in public service” provides a list defining what specifically is considered a gift for state officials, state law does not appear to provide a similar list in the chapter that sets a “code of ethics for municipal officers.”

On the city level, Tacoma’s Board of Ethics recently conducted a comprehensive review of the city’s ethics code and provided to the city council a list of recommendations for revisions, in part to eliminate subjectivity and vagueness in the ordinance.

Among other things, the ethics panel recommended eliminating a $50 threshold that helped to identify whether or not an official or employee could accept a gift. The code had excluded “any gift valued at $50 or less, which cannot reasonably be presumed to influence the vote, action, or judgment of the City official or be considered as part of a reward for action or inaction.” The board recommended making only “nominal” gifts acceptable.

Earlier this week, the city council unanimously approved that recommendation as part of a number of other revisions to the code.

On Monday, a day after the mayor returned to Tacoma, Strickland acknowledged she did not check with the City Attorney before using Chow’s flier miles for the trip. Asked if she thought accepting Chow’s gesture constituted a breach of ethics, given the city ordinance’s gift prohibition, she responded:

“I don’t think it is. There’s no financial benefit for me. I’m going over there trying to build relationships and create some opportunities for business in Tacoma.”

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