Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Facing Ethics Charge, Washington Lt. Gov Wants Legal Defense Fund

In the 1990s, an embattled President Bill Clinton created a legal defense fund. Now Washington Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen wants all state elected officials to have that option.

The Democrat, the state’s four-term lieutenant governor, is motivated by his own ethics troubles. 

Last summer, Washington’s Ethics Board found there was reasonable cause to believe Owen used public resources to a support a nonprofit entity he founded with his wife — a musical program that traveled to schools with anti-drugs and bullying message.

Owen believes the original ethics complaint was politically motivated. He maintains he did nothing wrong.

“It’s challenging, whether or not my work with kids was a legitimate function of my office,” he said.

Owen now faces a formal ethics hearing this fall. He has hired a lawyer to defend him against the attorney general’s office. Owen says when all is said and done, this could personally cost him $20,000 to $30,000 in legal fees.

“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 said.

Owen wants to be able to solicit his friends and political supporters to help defray his legal costs. But Washington elected officials can’t accept gifts in excess of $50 in value.

So this year, Owen worked behind the scenes to push legislation that would allow state officers to create an Ethics Defense Trust Fund. Instead of $50, contributors could give significantly more — the maximum allowed for campaign contributions.

Owen says it’s a matter of leveling the playing field.

“It’s really unconscionable when you think about it that you would say to somebody, ‘We’re going to limit your ability to raise the money to defend yourself when we know that this could cost thousands of dollars, guilty or not,’” Owen said.

Owen says Senate majority leadership assured him the Ethics Defense Fund measure would get a vote this year. But instead, it died. Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler confirms there were concerns about how this would play with the voting public.

“My wife says it looks bad. She’s a pretty good test of things,” Schoesler said.

For his part, Owen says this isn’t just about him. He believes all elected officials are vulnerable to politically motivated ethics complaints that could end up costing them a lot of money to defend.

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.