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In citizen Legislature, conflict of interest lines blurred

Morgan Garvin

Washington lawmakers have departed the Capitol and are getting back to their normal lives. For most of them, that means going back to their regular jobs as farmers, lawyers, nurses, business owners. It’s the essence of a citizen Legislature. But this dual existence—one job as a lawmaker and another job back home—can invite conflicts of interest.

Let’s start with a specific example of how the ethical lines can get blurred. Recently, the Washington Senate voted on a bipartisan compromise dealing with the estate tax. Freshman Senator John Braun was the lead Republican on the issue.

“I rise in somewhat conflicted support of this bill,” Braun said.

Braun referred to the estate tax as a “death tax,” but said he could support this compromise because it created a new deduction for family-owned businesses.

“This has offered the opportunity to do something, I believe, of great benefit to our state's small family businesses,” he said.

What you wouldn’t have known watching the debate is that Braun himself runs a business that builds specialty emergency vehicles like ambulances.

“Very much a family business,” said Braun.

So here’s the question: was it appropriate for Braun to negotiate and vote on an estate tax bill that carves out a specific exemption for families who own businesses? Later in the Senate wings, Braun said whether his family’s company would benefit was not a consideration. 

“I would take exception to anyone that would suggest that I am coming at this from a personal gain angle,” he said. “I was asked to participate and I did participate simply on the basis of my experience, my personal experience.”

As it turns out, Braun says he believes his share of the family’s business is too big to qualify for the new exemption. But even if it did, Lt. Governor Brad Owen, who presides over the Senate, would give Braun wide latitude.

“I find it very difficult to claim a conflict of interest in a legislative body that is made up of citizen legislators,” Owen said.

As Owen, a Democrat, gives formal and informal advice on questions about conflict of interest, his rule: as long as the lawmaker alone doesn’t benefit, it’s not an ethical problem. Owen gives the example of himself. When he was a state senator, he had a grocery business.

“And a grocer issue comes up, well, there are several thousand grocers in the state of Washington, you have every right and should, in my opinion, vote on that issue,” said Owen.

Washington’s Legislative Ethics Board applies the same rule. Citizen legislators often gravitate to the issues and committees that match their backgrounds—nurses to health care, teachers to education, police officers to public safety. Take State Rep. Mike Sells, a Democrat. In his private life, he works for the Snohomish County Labor Council. In the Legislature, he chairs the House Labor and Workforce Development Committee. Sells says he asked House leadership to let him chair the Higher Education Committee.

“They said , ‘But we’d like you to be the labor chair.’ And I said, ‘OK, I can handle it,’” Sells said.

Sells doesn’t see a conflict between working for a labor union and chairing a labor committee. This year, several changes to Washington’s injured workers system died in Sells committee. Business groups wanted them, labor was hotly opposed. But Sells says that didn’t mean he should have recused himself.

“There were not the votes on my committee because the Democrats did not feel it was a good thing to do, quite frankly. So it’s not something the chairman decides on their own to block,” he said.

But that can happen, too. When in doubt, Washington lawmakers can ask for a ruling on the floor. And there have been instances, though rare, when they do have to recuse themselves. That happened to former House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt in 2011 with a bill that directly affected his employer. DeBolt wishes more lawmakers would ask for conflict of interest rulings. He says that would show legislators are being cautious and have respect for the institution.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.