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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 with 15 Comments »
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.”

Leave a comment Comments → 15
  1. The establishment closes ranks. The chain newspaper rallies for one of their own. The word goes down. Then the “reporter” gives one side of the story only. And the McClatchys wonder why they’ve lost one-third of their paid circulation here.

  2. Nice reporting Lewis!

  3. the3rdpigshouse says:

    Once again Tacoma’s ignorant electorate has put an individual lacking the slightest amount of common sense and forethought!! It is amazing how little the electorate expects from its public officials!

    Elections still do have consequences!!!

  4. Jurisprudencelaw says:

    Why isn’t this site listed in you blogroll?


  5. tacomajoe says:

    There’s that word “gadfly” again. The reporter still doesn’t understand its meaning, even after having it explained very well to him.

  6. LEWIS KAMB is one of THE most unethical people in News Tribune history. When RR Anderson’s book came out (by all accounts the most important political once-in-a-lifetime events in Tacoma history) you got cricket noises from the Political TNT Blog… HUMBUG!

    < – – – – – – Please add the New Takhoman to the blog roll

  7. t_Johnson says:

    What’s the big deal and who cares. Ron Chow will just endorse the check over to Strickland’s next campaign fund.

  8. slasmith says:

    Repayment doesn’t change the fact that she broke the law and does not suffice as punishment all she has learned is to not get caught.

  9. Alison7613 says:

    I still have no issue with the fact these airline miles were given to our mayor. Strickland is trying to assist the city with economic development and was wise to save taxpayers the cost of airfare.

    John Hathaway is my friend and deserves a term more fitting than “gadfly.” It is good he keeps an eye on the city as constituents ought to. His reporting os often way ahead the Trib and that speaks volumes about the decades long decline in a paper dubbed more a “lapdog” than a “watchdog.” But again, I have no issue with Strickland’s actions. I am glad we do have people watching our officials though.

  10. If Chow (and be extension Strickland) really wanted to avoid the costs of her ‘homecoming trip’ being added to the City’s expenses, as they say they did, why didn’t Chow just write a check for the airfare costs payable directly to the City as a business donation BEFORE the trip? He didn’t because he wanted to curry personal favor with Strickland and in return SHE saved the personal expense to her for the airfare, since she already admitted she paid her ‘lodging and incidentals’ out of her own pocket. In truth, her ethical choices were ‘pay for it all herself’ or ‘not go at all since the City couldn’t afford it’.

    She knew this was a personal junket and a front for Chow’s businesses and HE knew he was using her status as Mayor to enhance his personal importance in the eyes of those in the Asian countries visited. He took his political lapdog with him and paraded her around as a show of power, which is respected in Asian business markets. Doing so, in their estimation, is equal to saying, ‘Look at my power, I can do things others can’t…you can profitably and effectively do business with me’.

  11. I thought that was very good reporting, Mr. Kamb. In my assessment, there seems to be quite a few holes in this story. First let me say that I believe that Ms. Strickland is a very intelligent woman and civil servant. That being said, I find it hard to believe that she was unaware that this is a blatant violation of both the Tacoma Ethics Code and Washington State Law. I have been a Federal Employee for nearly 30 years and Ethics 101 informs us that we may take no gifts or other gratuities from an entity that may influence our decision making.

    The second point is that she says that she will just pay back the amount and be forgiven. If I was to accept a bribe (ethics), would I just be allowed to pay back the amount and all is forgiven? Is there a different set of rules for ethics violations for elected officials?

    My third and final point is, does she think that the Public is so stupid to think that her decisions with regards to Mr. Chow will not be biased after he paid for her trip, arranged her meetings (in which he could probably tailor the attendees to further his business interests), then made sure that the tickets he was providing included a trip to her country of origin so she may re-connect with a family member?

    Our elected officials should not be above the law therefore, I believe Ms. Strickland should submit her resignation immediately and move on to something that this type of behavior is tolerated. We have had far too many instances of our elected officials breaking the law and not paying the consequences. This must stop!

  12. taxedenoughintacoma says:

    Cut the lady some slack. She is:
    may be from slaves
    a product of the public education system
    the best the liberals in Tacoma could come up with
    must not have been wearing her glasses that day when she got the air miles
    might have been abused as a child
    picked on by her GOP rivals
    math is her weakness (again a public school dummied down grad)

    With all of these excuses I forgive her

  13. PumainTacoma says:

    Foreign corruption practice act=jail+fine

    Kickbacks and bribery is against the law!

    Espionage is another risk when “associates” who are “plants” of forign countries use a third party to influence government politician.

    Strickland is an idiot and should be recalled!

  14. ttown508 says:

    Ms. Farris, please work your recall magic on this political crook before she makes Tacoma look worse than it usually does. Jim M., hold tight and run against Strickland. We need a no nonsense business type in there that knows what they are talking about especially if they are going to meet with other businesses.

  15. A note to all Pierce County officials, elected and otherwise:
    Ethics 101. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, paddles like a duck and flies like a duck…. it’s a damned duck. Likewise, if it looks unethical, seems unethical and you THINK it MIGHT BE unethical,,,, it IS, in all likelihood and with little room for doubt, UNETHICAL. Class dismissed for 25 minute recess after which we’ll discuss the term “Open Meetings” and why some of you still don’t get it!

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