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Tacoma: Ethics board finds Mayor Strickland violated rules by accepting airfare gift

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on May 19, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
May 19, 2011 6:52 pm

Tacoma’s citizen Board of Ethics issued findings today that Mayor Marilyn Strickland violated the city’s ethics code by accepting a “prohibited gift” when she used a Lakewood businessman’s frequent flier miles to pay for a recent business trip to Asia.

“Mayor Marilyn Strickland’s receipt of the frequent flyer miles constitutes receipt of a prohibited gift … and is a violation of the city’s Code of Ethics,” the board found in an 11-page report released today.

As punishment, the board recommended that by majority vote, the city council request the deputy mayor admonish Strickland for accepting a banned gift, and that all such travel-related gift offers meant to offset city costs be first brought before the council in the future.

In a brief telephone call Thursday, Strickland said she accepts the board’s findings and didn’t plan to appeal.

“I’m OK with it,” she said. “We’ve spent enough time on this already, I think.”

In its report, the board noted that Strickland could have avoided the code violation under a state law that allows municipal authorities to accept donations.

“Had the City Council properly accepted by ordinance the frequent flyer miles as a donation from Mr. (Ron) Chow to the City of Tacoma for the purpose of offsetting some of the cost of Mayor Strickland’s city related travel, the frequent flyer miles would not be considered a prohibited gift … and no violation of the City of Tacoma’s Code of Ethics would be found,” the report said.

The report also stated that facts “do not establish” that Strickland misused her official position to violate other rules and laws also examined during the investigation.

Strickland said she previously was unaware the council could have simply accepted the flier miles as a donation, sparing her an ethics ding.

“I didn’t even know that was an option,” she said.

“In one respect, I’m glad this was brought up,” Strickland added. “The good thing that has come out of this is we now understand how this can be done in the right way. In the future, we’ll know how we can use travel gifts to help save the city some money.”

Strickland said Thursday that since the ethics probe was sparked, she has reimbursed Chow $1,000 and has made arrangements to pay him the rest of the airfare’s value after she receives her tax refund.  Strickland didn’t readily know Thursday how much she still owes Chow, she said.

The board launched a formal probe after two citizens filed complaints against Strickland based on a News Tribune report that the mayor’s use of the Chow’s flier miles may have violated ethics rules.

At the time of Strickland’s trip, Tacoma’s ethics code prohibited city officials from giving or receiving gifts valued at $50 or more in connection with official city business.

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.

Before taking her trip, she told a reporter she used the flier miles of Chow – an international businessman with several area corporate clients – to avoid sticking the city with a bill for her travel expenses.  Chow, a personal friend, had set up business meetings for Strickland in China and accompanied her on part of her trip.

As part of its investigation, the board issued written interrogatories to Strickland and Chow and took sworn testimony.  Among its findings, the board found Chow did not attach any conditions or terms on Strickland’s use of the flier miles, nor did he “request or suggest future business” be directed toward him due to his involvement in the trip.

“I want to thank the board for its thoughtful deliberations,” Strickland said Thursday. “At the time, I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. “

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