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UPDATE Tacoma: Ethics board finds Robert Thoms improperly used his council office to benefit Tacoma Public Schools’ bond measure

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on May 20, 2013 at 12:26 pm with No Comments »
May 20, 2013 3:59 pm

UPDATE: 3:55 p.m. — with comments from Thoms.

Tacoma’s ethics board has found newly appointed City Councilman Robert Thoms violated city ethics rules when he supported a council resolution endorsing a school bond measure while his lobbying firm was under contract with Tacoma Public Schools.

Robert Thoms picIn its preliminary findings issued Friday, the ethics board concluded “Thoms used his office for the benefit or gain of another” by promoting and voting on the Feb. 5 resolution, which expressed council support for Proposition 1 and urged voters to approve it.

The ethics panel, which has no direct enforcement authority, recommended the city council vote on whether the mayor should verbally admonish Thoms against using his official position to benefit others with whom he has a business relationship.

Thoms said in an email to The News Tribune on Monday that he doesn’t plan to appeal the findings, adding that he was pleased the board dismissed two of three allegations against him.

“…I respect and accept their decision,” Thoms’ email said. ” Public education is a subject I am passionate about, not just for my own child, but for all children in our community.   After all I am a father of a child who just entered Tacoma Public Schools and I am an active PTA member.   I am committed that our children and our community need and deserve quality schools.”

In an interview shortly after his council appointment in January, Thoms told the TNT he didn’t forsee any conflicts between his council duties and his private business dealings as a lobbyist.

“I have not done anything with a city nexus in many years,” Thoms said at the time.

But, as we reported Feb. 27,  less than a month into his appointment, Thoms had taken votes on at least two issues – the school measure and an amendment to the Pt. Ruston local improvement district – that were directly tied to his private work as a lobbyist.

At the same time of the council’s vote on Prop. 1, Thoms’ lobbying firm, The Navigation Group, was under a $42,500 contract with Tacoma Public Schools.  Advancing the school bond measure, in part by lining up support from local elected officials, was among the services Thoms’ promised to deliver under the contract.

In a March 5 post to his blog, The New Takhoman, local gadfly John Hathaway raised questions about Thoms’ school district contract and other issues. City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli forwarded Hathaway’s post to the ethics board for consideration as a formal complaint.

As part of its inquiry, the ethics board obtained Thoms’ contracts with the school district and emails between Thoms and Deputy Tacoma Schools Superintendent Josh Garcia before and after the council’s endorsement of Proposition 1.

Shortly before the Feb. 5 vote, Thoms asked Garcia via email “do you have some comments, I can reiterate the need,” to which Garcia suggested several promotional statements.

The next day, Thoms emailed Garcia that the resolution had passed, but because he wasn’t sure the media reported his comments, Thoms intended to write a letter to the editor.

Based on such evidence, the ethics board concluded Thoms’ conduct violated a city rule against improperly using his position for the benefit or gain of others.

The board dismissed two other allegations against Thoms – one tied to his state lobbying registration, another to his council appointment to the multi-jurisdictional Joint Municipal Action Committee that considers school district interests.

Still, the board cautioned Thoms “to be aware of the potential for matters” in his committee work that would constitute a real or perceived conflict with his schools contract and recommended he recuse himself from participating in such instances.

The council appointed Thoms in January to fill the final year of a District 2 council term vacated by state Rep. Jake Fey. Thoms is now running as the incumbent for the seat’s next four-year term against downtown activist Patricia Lecy-Davis, who lost the council appointment to Thoms.

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