Karen Peterson

How ethical is a secretive ethics code?

Staff Photographer

The public meetings took place in a North End Tacoma library. Only a handful of people attended.

The government appointees met there to address ethics complaints against a local public official, but they did so without naming the official or the nature of the complaint, using only an assigned number.

When the moment came for substantive discussion, members retreated behind closed doors.

Following their secret session, they returned to deliver equally impenetrable statements about what they'd done.

When a reporter asked about the particulars or even the process, he got fearful, tenuous answers.

Welcome to the Pierce County Ethics Commission, where we’re serious about our ethics, but we don’t want to ruffle our public officials. Where we’re quite able to handle these matters behind closed doors with no public check or balance if we decide to dismiss a complaint. And where you’d be breaking the law to even speak about your complaint out loud.

News Tribune reporter Sean Robinson had an advantage when he attended a series of recent Ethics Commission meetings. He knew commissioners were addressing complaints about Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist published in a whistle-blower report that was made public.

The commission’s posted notice for the Nov. 12, 2015, meeting on the matter said only: “The special meeting is being held to review the Investigation Report. The regular business agenda items include Ethics Code update, and approval of pending advisory board opinions.”

Without advance knowledge, there was no way for a member of the public to know the commission was investigating Lindquist.

That’s the way the county ethics code is written.

If I file an ethics complaint against a county employee and tell anyone I did so, my complaint may be dismissed and I am “subject to a Class 1 civil infraction citation.”

Ethics commissioners and their appointed hearing officer can’t tell anyone they’ve received a complaint, let alone the contents of the complaint or the name of the person who complained.

If they find probable cause, a more public process ensues. But if they decide to drop a complaint, we don’t even get to know it existed.

It’s not the first time the TNT has bumped into this ultrasecretive process.

Robinson went through the same silliness when former County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam was facing a 15-count ethics complaint. Robinson emailed me about it back in 2012: "You can't even get anyone to say on the record that the complaint and hearing is about Washam, even though everyone knows it's about Washam, and we've established that fact in published stories."

Pierce County’s ethics commission operates with more secrecy than others.

The Tacoma Board of Ethics posts meeting agendas noting the existence of complaints. Its documents are public even before issues are resolved.

We’ve written about current city council members facing ethics complaints. Some were founded; others were not. In either case, council members survived the process.

In King County, an ombudsman receives complaints and publishes annual reports detailing their resolutions. Nothing in code prohibits disclosure.

With the Washington Legislative Ethics Board, complaints and opinions are public, even published online. And here’s how it handles complaints that are dismissed:

“If the board determines that the complaint is not within its jurisdiction or that there is not such reasonable cause, it shall issue an order dismissing the complaint, and shall notify the complainant, the respondent, and news media and others who have requested notice of the board's actions with a copy of the complaint and the board's reasons for dismissal.”

We get to decide what we think about dismissals.

Frustratingly, the Pierce County Council revised its ethics code last month, but only reinforced secrecy provisions.

Members voted unanimously for a provision titled: “Exemption from Public Disclosure,” which declares that nondisclosure is allowed under state law.

Not long after those provisions were adopted, however, we sought and obtained the very records about Lindquist that were supposedly exempt, following an independent legal analysis sought by county officials.

We wrote a story based on the final report by hearings officer and retired Superior Court Judge Thomas Felnagle. He found no probable cause that Lindquist violated the county ethics code.

The commission refused to reconsider the finding after former Deputy Prosecutor Mary Robnett wrote letters saying she’d heard Lindquist suggest giving county work to a private attorney in exchange for free legal representation.

Neither Felnagle, nor the commissioners, could tell us why they denied the request to reconsider, citing confidentiality restrictions.

“This is really a frustrating deal,” Felnagle said, “because everybody knows what’s going on, but then you can’t talk about it.”

It’s time the county council opened this process to the public. If ethics complaints have no merit, tell us that and tell us why. We’re pretty sure county officials will survive the process.

And given that the county’s own legal advisers say the new nondisclosure provision is out of line with state law, let’s get this cleaned up.

In the meantime, you can attend the next county ethics committee meeting. It’s Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. in the Wheelock Branch of the Tacoma Public Library.

But don’t be fooled by the welcoming invitation on the county website. It hints at a more transparent process than actually exists: “Meetings are open to the public and you are encouraged to attend.”