Cronyism or clumsy oversight? Either way, Pierce County leaders don’t look good in video contractor fiasco

A lesson in optics 101 for elected officials: The biggest financial winner of a government contract shouldn’t be the same person screening your calls at the office.

It’s a lesson you’d think Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier and Council Chairman Doug Richardson would know by instinct, but apparently not.

Alice McDaniel is Dammeier’s executive assistant. She used to hold the same job for Richardson. She and her husband, Matt McDaniel, also own Matty Photo & Motion.

At the same time McDaniel earns a $106,000 salary from the county, her Tacoma-based multimedia company has landed lucrative contract jobs for the county. Since 2016, Matty has received $125,147 for outsourced photo and video work.

Before working for Dammeier, McDaniel spent five years working for Richardson. Over the past three years, Richardson has relied exclusively on Matty for outsourced work, awarding the company $20,369 in government contracts.

Are those inside connections the reason McDaniel and her husband were given more than two-thirds of the county’s contract photo and video work?

The question naturally arises after a report published in the TNT last weekend by staff writer Josephine Peterson.

It’s a question worthy of a formal complaint to the Pierce County Ethics Commission. Someone in the community ought to file one, if they haven’t already.

While likely not a case of brazen corruption or self-dealing, it seems an awful lot like playing favorites. It seems, in a word, small-townish — not befitting leaders in Washington’s second-largest county.

Dammeier told Peterson he doesn’t believe he’s compromised a county code prohibiting employees from using their positions to secure something of value; he says he never picked up the phone and called Matty to do work for his office. He told Peterson he holds himself to the “highest standards.”

So why didn’t he call for all county departments to hold to that same standard? Isn’t it part of the county executive’s job to root out preferential treatment and entitlement?

The first-term executive claims there was no conflict of interest because the county communications department awarded the contracts. To avoid even the appearance of conflict, the communications department also set up a process known as a request for proposal, or RFP, to foster competition.

Or at least the veneer of competition. Six local photography and video companies applied for a county retainer, but it was McDaniel’s company that won it. Life Tree Studios received the only other retainer, but owner Barry Gregg told the TNT’s Peterson he was only called once and the job was a waste of time.

Dammeier didn’t help the bad optics by telling the TNT: “If you start applying some sort of different standard of ‘happens to know’ or ‘might have a relationship with’ then you are significantly disadvantaging some of our friends and neighbors who are involved in a variety of businesses and nonprofits.”

But McDaniel isn’t someone whom Dammeier and Richardson “happen to know.” She’s not a neighbor they wave to on their way to work. She sits in the same office and is privy to inside knowledge.

There’s a word for giving special advantages to insiders and friends: cronyism.

Council member Derek Young, who’s worked with the McDaniels on two projects, vouched for the quality of the company’s work, saying he was “blown away.” But even if their last name were Spielberg, such ethical lines shouldn’t be crossed.

Dammeier and Richardson should have given McDaniel a clear choice: work for the county or bid for private contracts. No, she doesn’t choose the contracts or sign the checks, but she works closely with those who do.

It’s the job of elected officials to ensure all contracts are handled fairly, and that not even a whiff of impropriety exists. It’s also their job to guard the public purse. No taxpayer should be left to question whether the system has been gamed.

Unfortunately, two of the county’s top elected leaders have stumbled on both those counts. We didn’t think they’d need an ethics commission to tell them poor judgment erodes public trust, but apparently they do.