Politics & Government

Puyallup councilman dinged for misusing internet during work hours as a county employee

Tom Swanson
Tom Swanson Puyallup Herald

Tom Swanson, a Pierce County employee and Puyallup's deputy mayor, spent too much time in 2016 surfing online during work hours, according to a recent decision by the county's Ethics Commission.

"I acknowledge I am fully responsible for understanding the rules," Swanson said Monday. "I failed to understand that. I need to be held to a higher standard, and that’s the standard I need to hold myself to."

Swanson, 39, is a county legislative analyst, and one-time aide to former County Councilwoman Joyce McDonald. He was first elected to the Puyallup City Council in 2011 and selected as deputy mayor in January 2018.

His county salary in 2017 was $99,732. He spent hours on sports, travel and shopping websites, as well as social media sites, according to an analysis of his browsing history that appears in records of the commission's investigation. The records show no sign that Swanson visited illicit or adult sites.

The commission's April 11 findings stem from a public records request and subsequent ethics complaint filed last year by Dave Churchman, a frequent critic of Puyallup government. Churchman's complaint accused Swanson of misusing public assets by browsing Amazon and other sites.

The county's ethics code prohibits the use of public equipment for private or personal use. The five-member commission retained retired Superior Court Judge Ron Culpepper as a hearing officer to investigate the complaint. Culpepper spoke to an employee of the county's information technology division, who reviewed Swanson's browsing history on five randomly selected days over a six-month period, according to records.

The reviewer divided the history into categories, noting the total time spent on different types of sites. Browsing time ranged from four minutes to more than five hours spent on different types of non-work-related sites, according to records. Culpepper's findings noted that the listed times didn't necessarily mean Swanson was actively viewing them.

"A person may open a 'tab' or visit a site, and if the tab is not closed, it remains open until it is closed, even though the site is not being actively used," the findings stated.

Culpepper also spoke to Swanson, who admitted his actions.

"Swanson acknowledged that he failed to adequately understand the Ethics Code and that his use of the internet on his county computer and during County time was outside the boundaries of the Ethics Code," the findings state.

Culpepper's initial findings point to a possible conflict between county policies regarding internet use, which permit limited and brief personal use of computers, and the ethics code, which prohibits any private use.

A November 2017 letter from Swanson to Culpepper alludes to those circumstances. Swanson states that he thought a trivial or "de minimis" standard applied to limited browsing for personal purposes.

The commission's powers include the ability to fine code violators up to $5,000. After a brief executive session last week, members voted unanimously to censure Swanson without any additional penalty, ordering him to cease and desist from using county resources in a manner that violates the code.

Swanson said Monday that he fully agreed with the decision. He noted that the complaint against him reflected the occasionally bitter tone of Puyallup politics, but he said he would be more careful in the future.

"It’s my responsibility to know those things and I didn’t," he said. "My bosses have been understanding. It is what it is."

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 @seanrobinsonTNT