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Questions raised about lawmakers doing ‘Columbo’-style detective work on ethics allegations

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on March 26, 2013 at 12:56 pm with No Comments »
March 26, 2013 12:58 pm
Peter Falk, aka “Columbo”

Washington’s insufficient protections for ethics whistle blowers create a “chilling effect” on state employees, Executive Ethics Board director Melanie DeLeon told lawmakers today.

“If you want to file a complaint against your supervisor, you feel like you’re going to be retaliated against,” she said after talking to the House Government Operations and Elections Committee. “So they don’t. They don’t file it.”

But criticism emerged today of the fix suggested by Sen. Mike Carrell. His proposed overhaul of ethics laws passed the Senate 47-0 and escaped scrutiny from Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget office, which now says it has noticed some problems.

Among them is a provision letting elected officials keep files secret on their own personal investigations of wrongdoing. The agency said it would encourage separate investigations by politicians parallel to official probes.

A newspaper lobbyist agreed that’s not the role of elected officials. ”You’d be out there in a sort of ‘Columbo’-esque way trying to figure out what happened,” Rowland Thompson told lawmakers.

“I do have an old raincoat,” joked the committee chairman, Rep. Sam Hunt.

Carrell, a Republican senator from Lakewood, did his own sleuthing in a case that inspired the bill.

The case centered on a manager at the Department of Corrections who had spent work time running a series of corrections-related nonprofits. Carrell looked into whistle blowers’ tips and filed his own complaint with the ethics board, which eventually fined Belinda Stewart more than $13,000.

Carrell complained that too much of the case was turned over to Stewart’s allies at Corrections; that two unnamed whistle blowers faced retaliation; and that top Corrections officials escaped without consequences even though they had sanctioned much of Stewart’s work.

The case led to his bill, Senate Bill 5577, which would:

  • Let the ethics board fine bosses up to $5,000 for retaliating against whistle blowers and suspend them up to a month without pay. The governor’s Office of Financial Management opposed suspensions, arguing they would conflict with civil-service law and might actually keep officials from being fired if that is a more appropriate punishment than suspension.
  • Withhold more information on whistle blowers to keep agencies from learning their identities. Ethics complaints and investigations would be withheld from release. The board said it already keeps investigations secret from the public but not from agencies.
  • Allow penalties for supervisors who acquiesce in ethics violations.
  • Require ethics board staff rather than agency staff to take the lead in investigations.

Hunt, D-Olympia, said he hoped to advance the bill but only after a rewrite. “It’s going to take a lot of work,” he said.

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