Politics & Government

GOP pushes for transparency in governor’s office after Inslee’s climate adviser draws scrutiny

Gov. Jay Inslee speaks during his annual state of the state address before a joint legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Gov. Jay Inslee speaks during his annual state of the state address before a joint legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) AP

A group of Republican lawmakers has introduced legislation seeking more transparency from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office following a report that one of the governor’s climate advisers is paid with money from an environmental nonprofit.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board reported on Jan. 11 that adviser Reed Schuler’s position is funded through a grant from the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute. Schuler has been an influential member of Inslee’s team as the governor developed and lobbied for his latest proposal for a tax on carbon emissions.

While Inslee’s office maintains the arrangement is a somewhat unique but ethically acceptable arrangement, the board’s article raised questions of whether Schuler’s funding counts as outsiders having an inside track at shaping state policy.

State Rep. Drew Stokesbary, an Auburn Republican who introduced the transparency measure Wednesday, said he believes the public should have an easier way to find information about government positions funded by outside groups.

He criticized Schuler’s arrangement as questionable “outside influence” that was only outed after the Journal “spent weeks digging into it.”

“I sort of questioned why (Inslee) shrouded it in secrecy if it’s such a nonissue in his eyes,” Stokesbary said.

Stokesbary’s bill would require the governor’s office, the Legislature and other state agencies and elected officials, to release information through the state’s Public Disclosure Commission about staffers whose salary is paid for with money from an outside entity. The PDC typically tracks campaign spending and lobbying in Washington.

That information would include the name of the employee, what their work centers on, their salary and the name of organization funding the position.

If a nonprofit is paying for the staffer, disclosure of the organization’s top 50 donors — and any donor who gave more than $50,000 to the group in the last two years — would be required.

Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Inslee, said Wednesday the office was still reviewing the bill and didn’t comment directly on it.

But Smith said in an email that records of grant-funded positions, “like most Governor’s Office and state agency records, are disclosable to anyone who wants to see them.”

Smith said she believes the contracts for the positions are also available online. State officials Wednesday were trying to locate that information.

Tara Lee, another Inslee spokeswoman, said earlier this month that Schuler’s position is the only one on the governor’s staff currently funded by an outside group.

Two other policy advisers have worked under “similar circumstances” in the past, Lee said.

One worked on shellfish issues and the other on homelessness. Both advisers are still on the governor’s staff but are fully paid by the state.

Another person once was funded through a grant for aerospace issues, Lee said, but the position has since moved to Washington’s Department of Commerce.

Inslee’s office has largely dismissed claims of influence peddling. Earlier this month, Lee attacked the Journal’s editorial page as biased and opposed to “the governor’s efforts to reduce carbon pollution.”

“Regarding the use of philanthropic funds, we are happy that public/private partnerships allow us to fill critical gaps,” Lee said in the January email.

“As I said in the Wall Street Journal, Reed Schuler is a Washington state employee. He is subject to the same legal and ethical requirements as any other state employee.”

Smith said paying for staffers using money from private groups also predates Inslee. She said Gov. Christine Gregoire’s administration used grants to pay for at least one staff position.

Others still called the practice questionable. Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said Wednesday he is concerned about outside organizations paying the salary of someone within the governor’s office.

“Where do their loyalties lie? Do they lie with the people of the state or do they lie with that organization?” said Nixon, a Kirkland City Councilman and a Republican.

With that in mind, he said “the more information the better” is a good government approach for positions such as Schuler’s.

“I think (Stokesbary’s) bill makes a solid argument that we should understand who is trying to influence public policy,” Nixon said. “We do that through campaign-finance reporting. We do that through lobbyist reporting.”

Nixon added that some of the details of Stokesbary’s bill “need to be negotiated or worked through,” such as whether disclosure of 50 of the top donors of a nonprofit group is necessary.

Stokesbary had similar criticisms of outside groups paying for Inslee’s advisers.

He said those worried about organizations with deep pockets influencing policy through election spending should be equally concerned by grant-funded positions.

“The idea that we’re concerned about outside influence isn’t new,” Stokesbary said. “What’s new is folks who want to peddle influence have found a way to shortcut the election process.”

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein