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David Dicks and Norm Dicks. City of Tacoma photo.

David Dicks and Norm Dicks. City of Tacoma photo.


Family Ties To Puget Sound Posts

John Ryan

There's little doubt that Puget Sound is in bad shape — or that restoring the ecosystem will take many millions of dollars. Congressman Norm Dicks has steered millions of federal dollars to the cleanup effort. His son David runs the state agency in charge of cleaning up Puget Sound. Father and son both say there's no conflict between family and public interest. Ethics experts split on the question. In part three of our series "Inside the Puget Sound Partnership," KUOW's John Ryan focuses on the agency's family ties.


Government workers are heading home for the day from a shiny building near the western shores of Puget Sound. City Hall in Bremerton is officially known as the Norm Dicks Government Center. It looms over the downtown of this military community.

The Congressman himself looms large in regional and even national politics. After three decades in Congress, Norm Dicks is in line to become the head of the House Appropriations Committee this fall. That would give the Democrat from Bremerton more power over federal spending than almost anyone.

Fletcher: "It's always good to have friends in high places."

Kathy Fletcher is head of the group People for Puget Sound.

Fletcher: "And Puget Sound is especially blessed to have a friend in Norm Dicks."

In May, her nonprofit gave Norm Dicks a lifetime achievement award.

Fletcher: "Today we honor Norm's tireless efforts to increase federal support for Puget Sound protection and restoration, which, thanks to him, is receiving a $50 million boost this year."

Some of that money is going to the Puget Sound Partnership — the agency run by Norm's son. Most of it will go to other agencies so they can carry out the Partnership's long–term plan for saving Puget Sound.

In his acceptance speech, the Congressman touted the dramatic increase in federal funding for Puget Sound in the past three years.

Norm Dicks: "When I took over as chairman of the Interior Subcommittee in 2007 — "

That's the same year his son David became head of the brand new Puget Sound Partnership.

Norm Dicks: " — Puget Sound was receiving $500,000 from EPA. Since then, we've put in $93 million for Puget Sound cleanup in the federal legislation."

Sound: (applause)

Dicks has authored a bill that could more than double federal funding for Puget Sound over current levels. A similar bill is working its way through the US Senate. The legislation would boost the budget and political profile of the Puget Sound Partnership.

David Dicks: "It also clarifies that the Partnership is the sort of entity in Washington state charged with cleaning up Puget Sound."

Executive director David Dicks:

David Dicks: "It'll be a big thing. I mean, it'll put us up from the kids' table, so to speak, to the adult table with the big guys — the Chesapeake and Everglades."

Even with millions of dollars involved, father and son say there's no conflict between family ties and public interest. Here's Norm Dicks:

Norm Dicks: "We sought an opinion from the ethics committee, and they suggested that he deal with my staff and with the committee staff, and that was the best way to do it. I have always been for the cleanup and restoration of Puget Sound, and so I don't think I have to not do my job because David Dicks is the executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership."

Political scientist David Olson agrees. He's an emeritus professor at the University of Washington.

Olson: "If the appropriations went directly to David Dicks or to any other member of the family or in any way enhanced their personal wealth, that's an act of corruption. If the appropriation is going to agencies and institutions, that's a totally different question. And that's fair game, that's American politics. That's the way our system works."

Holman: "If it is classified as fair game under the law, then the law should be changed."

Craig Holman is a lobbyist with the watchdog group Public Citizen in Washington, DC.

Holman: "It was really unethical for Norm Dicks to be the person sponsoring this type of legislation. He should have recognized there's a conflict of interest and deferred the legislation to others who don't have a conflict."

Norm Dicks has been working on Capitol Hill since 1968.

David Dicks was a partner at an environmental law firm when he got his first government job three years ago. Governor Chris Gregoire appointed him to lead the Puget Sound Partnership at the age of 36.

Bill Ruckelshaus chaired the board that picked the finalists for David Dicks' job. He retired last month at the age of 78. The board, known as the Leadership Council, also oversees the Partnership. I asked Dicks and Ruckelshaus if Norm Dicks helped his son get the job.

David Dicks: "My dad explicitly did not play a part in it, and in fact, I think the Leadership Council — "

Bill Ruckelshaus: "I can tell you firsthand his dad had nothing to do with it; if anything it was an inhibitor from the standpoint of the leadership because of the question you just asked."

Republican state Senator Mark Schoesler is dubious. He represents the opposite corner of the state from Puget Sound. Schoesler says David Dicks has mismanaged the agency.

Schoesler: "If David's last name had been Jones, he wouldn't have the job. His dad is, you know, likely the next appropriations chair of the House of Representatives. So, obviously, they felt that it was a key to funds. I don't think it was based on administrative or legal skills."

David Dicks told the Leadership Council at its meeting in January that administration is not his strong suit. He said he would hand his day–to–day management duties over to his deputy director.

David Dicks: "There's a level of complexity here that I just cannot do all this stuff at the same time and obviously don't feel like I'm particularly brilliant at the day–to–day management operations, admittedly."

Several environmental consultants and activists declined to speak on tape for this story.

One environmental professional says the Partnership's hold on the government purse strings has a chilling effect. It makes people reluctant to question the agency's actions — at least publicly. They don't want to be cut off from the tide of money that flows through Congressman Dicks and his son.

David Dicks isn't the only Partnership official with a family connection. Bill Ruckelshaus' daughter Mary is finishing up two and one–half years as the chief scientist there. She's worked for the Partnership half time, on loan from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The federal government has picked up the tab.

Such interagency loans are common, and by all accounts, Mary Ruckelshaus is a highly qualified biologist. Here's John Dohrmann. Before he retired, he was deputy director of head of government affairs at the agency that came before the Puget Sound Partnership.

[Ed.:Transcript has been edited and differs from the broadcast version. John Dohrmann was director of government affairs, not deputy director, of the Puget Sound Action Team. (8/25/10)]

Dohrmann: "Mary Ruckelshaus is an excellent scientist, has done a lot of work on Puget Sound. It has always been humorous when she's been in a position to testify or make a presentation in front of a board that her father is chairing."

Bill Ruckelshaus laughed —

Bill Ruckelshaus: "Ha!"

— when I asked him if he played a role in his daughter's position.

Bill Ruckelshaus: "I don't have anything to do, other than when David asks me, about hiring anybody at the Puget Sound Partnership. He's running it, not me."

Bill Ruckelshaus and the Leadership Council did appoint the nine volunteer members of the Partnership's science panel. But the Washington State Academy of Sciences was in charge of picking the 15 finalists. Avoiding conflicts of interest was one of their top concerns.

The Academy of Sciences rejected Mary Ruckelshaus' application. Three months later, David Dicks signed her up to be his agency's chief scientist.

Mary Ruckelshaus says she now understands that it could have been a conflict of interest if she had served on a panel that reviews the work of her dad's agency. But she says that her job doing scientific studies for the Partnership presented no conflict.

To get his job as executive director, David Dicks had to beat out his competition. But most of the management staff at the Puget Sound Partnership never had to apply for their jobs. Dicks simply appointed people to the well–paid positions.

KUOW reported earlier this year that the average annual salary at the Partnership was $20,000 more than at the state's other natural–resource agencies.

Handing out those jobs without advertising them was perfectly legal. It does stand in contrast to practices at most state agencies. David Dicks says the Partnership was under severe time pressure.

David Dicks: "The Legislature had just abolished the former agency. So we had very, very few employees — under 10 — and we needed to get staff to complete our mission quickly."

Haste was also the rationale the agency offered for giving a $50,000, no–bid contract to someone David Dicks had known since birth. We'll have that story tomorrow.

I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2010, KUOW

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