A reasonable bill, but inappropriately promoted

The OlympianMarch 25, 2014 

Washington State Lt. Governor Brad Owen, right, plays and sings Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" for Lister Elementary School students including Jazzmin Spice, 9, and Jarrold Torres, top, during an assembly, in Tacoma, March 15, 2011. Owen and his wife Linda Owen created and produced the musically driven assembly to empower youth. After presenting Strategies for Youth with an anti-bullying and anti-drug message to elementary, middle and high school audiences, for 22-years Owen gave his final show at Lister, his alma mater.

JANET JENSEN/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Suppose an elected official suspected of violating state ethics rules promotes legislation designed to help elected officials pay the legal expenses associated with such investigations into ethical violations. Does that seem awkward to you?

We think so.

To make matters worse, that elected official, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, has publicly complained about it.

During last summer’s election campaign, allegations arose that Owen had created an improper relationship between his office and his personal nonprofit organization, Strategies For Youth. The nonprofit traveled to schools around the state using music to speak out against bullying and drug abuse.

Owen funded the nonprofit by soliciting funds from lobbyists, which then paid his wife a salary and provided his family with a $33,000 truck. Although he shut down the nonprofit, Owen denied the allegations and claimed they were politically motivated.

But the Executive Ethics Board thinks otherwise. It’s scheduled an ethics hearing for this fall that Owen estimates will cost him $20,000 to $30,000 in legal fees.

Owen pushed a bill this session that would have allowed elected officials to create a Ethics Defense Trust Fund and solicit contributions up to $500 per person per year, the same as the campaign contribution limit established by the Public Disclosure Commission.

It’s a reasonable bad bill. Elected officials who find themselves charged with ethics violations sometimes find it difficult to afford the legal fees needed for an adequate defense. Under existing rules, they could only accept a maximum of $50 from any one sympathizer.

Former state Auditor Brian Sontag testified in favor of the legislation.

But the bill looked bad to state senators – as if it was specifically designed for the lieutenant governor who was lobbying for its passage. The bill never got a vote.

This might have all been forgotten as a terrible idea – good bill, bad timing – until Owen publicly criticized the bill’s failure.

“So you’re faced with having to go through this process with no means of raising the money to defend yourself that even a murderer would have the right to do,” he told the NW News Network. Probably not the best analogy he could have used.

Owen gets no sympathy from us. After 38 years in public office, he should know the perils of playing too close to the out-of-bounds line. And this isn’t the Democrat’s first rub up against questionable practices.

The Public Disclosure Commission fined Owen $1,000 last year for failing to file campaign finance reports on time. Questions were also asked about the transfer of $23,713 at the end of his 2008 campaign into an “office fund” that he used to reward staff in the lieutenant governor’s office.

These missteps are unfortunate. They cast a shadow on his competent oversight of the Senate and his excellent command of parliamentary rules.

But when it comes to at least the appearance of political correctness, the lieutenant governor stumbles.

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