Report: McKenna had taste for free travel

SEATTLE — Washington’s Republican candidate for governor, Rob McKenna, has spent a lot of time as attorney general traveling on other people’s dime, The Seattle Times reported Sunday.

The newspaper said McKenna accepted nearly three times as many privately paid trips and event tickets over the past seven years as his predecessor, Gov. Chris Gregoire, did during her last eight years as attorney general.

Financial reports filed with the Public Disclosure Commission show that McKenna accepted $184,000 worth of free travel and events since taking office in 2005. They include two free trips to Israel, two to Taiwan, and one each to France, the Middle East, Japan, and China and India.

The number of free trips McKenna accepted also is more than four times the number reported over a similar period by his gubernatorial opponent, Democrat Jay Inslee, who recently resigned his seat in Congress.

The free trips are allowed under state law as long as they’re disclosed to the public, and McKenna says his extracurricular activities have helped him develop relationships that benefit Washingtonians. He also says he took the trips on his own time.

“All the trips have been at no cost to state taxpayers,” McKenna said. “I do get vacation, and I get to use that vacation as I want.”

He also said he was invited on many of the trips because he was elected attorney general when he was 42, and the groups considered him a young leader with a promising future.

McKenna’s travel began six days after he was first sworn in as Washington’s attorney general. His first stop was Washington, D.C., where he attended a conference paid for by the State Government Leadership Foundation, a Republican group that promotes a conservative legislative agenda and bankrolls campaign ads for GOP candidates.

The three-day trip cost $1,108, and was followed by a $17,000 trip to Japan paid for by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, two more conferences hosted by the conservative foundation, and a $2,400 trip to Maui, courtesy of a regional attorneys-general group.

Both trips to Taiwan and one of the Israel trips were connected with delegations sponsored by the National Association of Attorneys General, a professional group. He was elected vice president of the organization in 2009, and its president in 2011. In addition to the foreign travel, he has taken about two trips a year to attend association meetings.

Foreign governments are “looking to build a personal relationship with people who might become leaders of the country,” and stateside leaders develop deeper understandings of a range of issues involving trade, extradition and legal systems, said Jim McPherson, the association’s executive director.

“There’s value in face-to-face meetings with the presidents of Taiwan and Israel and his or her staff,” McPherson said

In 2007, a nonpartisan policy group based in Washington, D.C., The Aspen Institute, sent McKenna on an $18,000 trip to China and India in 2007. The next year, it sent him to the Middle East for $13,000.

Also in 2008, the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs paid for McKenna’s $10,000 trip to France. His wife, Marilyn, accompanied him, but his spokesman said the attorney general paid her way.

McKenna also traveled free to meetings and conferences paid for by the Republican Attorney General’s Association, a partisan group affiliated with the conservative foundation that financed earlier trips. The foundation is not required to disclose the donors who fund it.

Records show that McKenna spent 56 days — eight weeks — in travel paid for by others in 2011. The travel included conferences and speaking engagements in-state and out of state, and goodwill and educational trips overseas.

Some of the travel, particularly in-state trips, may not have been a full day.

In 2010, he spent 49 days on free travel.

An ethics expert said the extent of McKenna’s free travel and events raises questions about the time he spends away from the office, particularly on trips paid for by political entities, and about the actual benefits the travel and events provide to the state.

“When you take an oath of office, you vow to put the public interest first,” said Judy Nadler, former mayor of Santa Clara, Calif., and a senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

As a congressman, Inslee took three privately financed trips overseas, and 14 trips to speaking engagements, conferences and fact-finding missions in the United States from June 2001 to June 2011, according to the most recent reports available.

Inslee traveled to Germany in 2008 courtesy of the International Management and Development Institute, a nonprofit educational group funded in part by corporations that cannot directly pay for Congress members’ travel.

He also traveled to France and Belgium in 2004 on an eight-day trip paid for by the Transatlantic Policy Network, a nonprofit group that seeks to strengthen ties between the U.S. and the European Union, and to Nicaragua in 2005 on a five-day trip sponsored by Global Partnerships, a not-for-profit Seattle-based organization that invests in microfinance groups.

During her tenure as attorney general, Gregoire also accepted free travel, but most of it was directly tied to her role in negotiating a $206 billion settlement between tobacco companies and attorneys general from 46 states.

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