Former state officials need to cool heels before lobbying

A state ethics board has dismissed as “obviously unfounded or frivolous” complaints that three former state officials had helped the Snohomish County Public Utility District obtain a $7.3 million grant through the state’s Clean Energy Fund.

As reported Wednesday by The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield and Dan Catchpole, the state Executive Ethics Board interviewed the three former officials for the state Department of Commerce and reviewed two year’s worth of emails, investigating whether the three, now working for private companies involved with the grant request, had influenced the grant’s award to the PUD and contractor 1Energy Systems.

Former state Commerce Director Rogers Weed joined 1Energy’s board of directors five months after leaving his state post and later became an executive for 1Energy. Deputy Director Daniel Malarkey left his state job to join 1Energy and assist in writing the PUD grant application. A third former Commerce official, Michael Carr, helped to launch the Clean Energy Fund while at Commerce and is now an attorney for a PUD subcontractor through 1Energy.

Again, the ethics board found no merit to the anonymous complaints. Other than Malarkey’s work to draft a policy memo on how the Clean Energy Fund could be structured, the ethics board said the three had no role in drafting the fund legislation, developing the application process, evaluating the applicants or selecting the grant recipient.

But when public officials leave office and join private companies that do business with government agencies, it’s natural for some to wonder about the potential for past connections to influence the decisions of government agencies.

Current state law already imposes restrictions on some former state officials and employees, particularly where private employment would require disclosure of confidential information obtained while working for the state. But unlike more than 30 other states, Washington has no “cooling off” period that prevents former legislators, state officials or other employees from lobbying their old employer on behalf of their new employer.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has requested legislation be reintroduced that would require lawmakers, elected officials and agency heads to cool their heels for one year before they could become a paid lobbyist or seek to influence state government decisions. The bills are House Bill 1136 and Senate Bill 6258.

The legislation isn’t seeking to prevent a company from hiring a former official, but for a one-year period elected officials, agency chiefs and senior-level staff, after leaving a state post, would be required to notify the state when taking a job with a company that does business with the state and could not lobby on behalf of the new employer.

The legislation was proposed in 2014 following a New York Times investigation that found that former State Attorney General Rob McKenna and his deputy were lobbying former colleagues on behalf of private clients, including T-Mobile, just months after leaving office.

The lack of such a cooling-off period was noted by the Center for Public Integrity in its 2015 state-by-state rankings on State Integrity, contributing to the F grade it received for executive accountability and the D-plus that Washington state received overall.

Investigations, such as the state Executive Ethics Board’s review of the Clean Energy Fund contracts, can answer immediate concerns and restore some confidence in public agencies, but a clearer separation when public officials leave their jobs and join private firms would help to head off suspicions that can damage credibility and trust in government.

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