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David Dicks' state–owned Prius. See what other state officials drive to work on the public dime (PDF). Photo by John Ryan.

David Dicks' state–owned Prius. See what other state officials drive to work on the public dime (PDF). Photo by John Ryan.

KUOW News

State Leaders Commute On Public Dime

John Ryan
08/18/2010

The head of the Puget Sound Partnership gets a perk that few state–agency directors do. The state provides David Dicks a Toyota Prius for his exclusive use on the job. A whistle–blower complained that Dicks was also using the official vehicle for a personal benefit: his commute to work. State investigators declined to look into the allegations. So reporter John Ryan decided to investigate for KUOW.

TRANSCRIPT

David Dicks isn't the only high–level state employee who commutes in a company car. But he may be the only one to do so without clear legal justification.

Washington prohibits state employees from using cars or any other public resources for private gain. But the car–use restrictions don't apply to statewide–elected officials in the executive branch.

That group of nine includes the governor, attorney general, auditor and treasurer. State law specifically grants them the privilege of commuting with state–assigned cars, as well as driving them on official business. Of those nine elected officials, three don't take advantage of the perk. The other six commute in taxpayer–provided vehicles. That's even as steep budget cuts have reduced government services to the public.

David Dicks is not an elected official. Governor Chris Gregoire appointed him in 2007 to lead the newly created Puget Sound Partnership. So the law that allows elected officials to commute on the public dime doesn't apply to him. Dicks' blue Prius has a decal below the sloping rear window. It says, "for official use only." And the attorney–turned–agency–director says that's all he uses the Prius for.

Dicks: "I do not use the state vehicle to commute, per se."

Dicks has his main office in downtown Seattle and another one in Olympia. The Puget Sound Partnership leases a parking space for him in a commercial garage near the agency's downtown Seattle office. But he says his state car's official station is in front of his home in Wallingford.

Dicks: "We've stationed the car at my house intentionally. We've registered it as being there, and we believe it's being appropriately used according to the state guidelines."

The Partnership has no written records to back up Dicks' claim that the car is registered to be at his house. The agency in charge of the state motor pool says Dicks' car is stationed in Olympia. But David Dicks says the car belongs at his house and not at one of his workplaces because he spends most of his time away from Seattle. He is often in Olympia, and for more than two years, his agency has been holding meetings all around Puget Sound to get public input on its long–term plan to clean up the Sound.

Dicks: "Often, I have taken the car from my house, to downtown, parked it, and then used it to go to Bellevue or go wherever. It would be inefficient in our view for me to basically take the bus downtown, get the car, then go to Mt. Vernon or something to that effect."

That's the process state employees usually go through when they need to drive somewhere on official business.

KUOW requested the Partnership's records of its car use. The agency's public records officer said the electronic reservation system had deleted the information we were after. In other words, the computer ate the agency's homework.

With the legally–required public records missing, KUOW dug up other evidence of Dicks' commute patterns. In recent months, we found Dicks' state–assigned Prius parked in front of his house on 17 out of 22 weeknights, or three–fourths of the time. Most of those days, Dicks' appointment calendar had no meetings outside of Seattle. An agency spokesman says many of Dicks' meetings don't make it onto his calendar.

KUOW wanted to see if Dicks' commuting habits were standard practice. So we asked the governor's office to survey agency directors on their use of state vehicles. Only two of the two–dozen directors in the governor's cabinet have state–assigned vehicles, according to the governor's office. And other than David Dicks, the only state agency director who drives to work in a government vehicle is State Patrol Chief John Batiste.

Williams: "First off, he is a fully commissioned trooper with the Washington State Patrol."

State trooper spokesman Freddy Williams:

Williams: "And all commissioned troopers are assigned take–home vehicles."

State law specifically allows law–enforcement personnel to take their patrol vehicles home. That way, they can respond to emergencies at any time. Williams says the chief's Chevy Tahoe is a fully functional law–enforcement vehicle.

Williams: "Lights, siren, everything else, and he will stop violators that he sees on the road."

David Dicks says the Puget Sound Partnership is reviewing its vehicle use. Dicks says if they're not in compliance with the law, they'll fix it immediately.

I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2010, KUOW

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