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Sunset over Puget Sound. Photo by John Ryan.

Sunset over Puget Sound. Photo by John Ryan.

KUOW News

Cleaning Up With Political Connections

John Ryan
08/20/2010

In May, state auditors reported that the Puget Sound Partnership had misspent state funds during the agency's first two years. Problems at the agency responsible for cleaning up Puget Sound included illegal purchases and the unfair distribution of millions of dollars in consulting contracts.

The auditors didn't look into the political connections of people getting those contracts. KUOW did. We found contracts going to people who had worked with Congressman Norm Dicks. The influential Democrat's son is the Partnership's executive director. Reporter John Ryan brings us part four of our look inside the Puget Sound Partnership.



TRANSCRIPT

Tom Luce of Tacoma and Steve McBee of Washington, DC, are both lobbyists and consultants. They both got contracts with the Puget Sound Partnership.

They have something else in common: Both know the Partnership's executive director, David Dicks, because they worked for his father.

Luce ran Congressman Dicks' offices in Washington state. McBee used to be a top military advisor for the Congressman before he started McBee Strategic Consulting. His firm got nearly $400,000 in consulting work from the Partnership.

David Dicks was an environmental attorney for a decade before Governor Chris Gregoire picked him to head the Puget Sound Partnership. So he says he knows a lot of people in the field. And he says there was nothing improper about giving work to people he knew through his dad.

David Dicks: "The reality of the situation is there are only so many people that work in this field that are competent and good. I think it would have been probably improper had we precluded anybody that knew me, or my dad for that matter, from working on this."

The Partnership paid consulting firms about $6 million to gather public input and help create the state's latest plan for restoring Puget Sound.

Consultants who wanted a piece of that action had to compete to join a roster of qualified firms.

The Partnership then handed out contract after contract to firms it favored instead of letting everyone on the roster compete as work came along. One third of the qualified consultants never got any work.

Emily Johnson was in charge of the recent state audit of the Partnership. She says the practice violated various state requirements designed to ensure open and fair competition.

Emily Johnson: "Even though the agency may think that there is only one person who is suitable for the job, there may be a firm or a company that could possibly offer the state a better price."

The Partnership gave more than a million dollars' worth of work to a Seattle firm called EnviroIssues. Tacoma lobbyist Tom Luce did outreach for the Partnership as a subcontractor to the firm.

EnviroIssues' founder declined to speak on tape. Her name's Pat Serie.

But she told KUOW that she doesn't recall whose idea it was to sign Luce up for the work. Serie says EnviroIssues had never worked with Luce before and did not supervise his work in this case. It was managed directly by the Partnership.

David Dicks says he believes one of his staff suggested adding Luce to the EnviroIssues contract.

KUOW obtained the contract. It specifies that the 30–year–old with a bachelor's degree in English would be paid $300 an hour. Invoices show that Luce only charged $200 an hour. Even that rate is three times what another, more experienced consultant working with Tom Luce charged the Partnership.

One contractor who did charge more was attorney Gerry Johnson with the law firm K&L Gates. He billed nearly $500 an hour for his work setting up a nonprofit foundation for the Partnership.

K&L Gates got that work without having to bid on it — a no–bid contract.

David Dicks says he's known Gerry Johnson —

David Dicks: " — since I was born. He worked for Senator Magnuson."

Gerry Johnson and Norm Dicks worked together in US Senator Warren Magnuson's office before Norm ran for Congress. For the past 20 years, Johnson has been a faithful campaign contributor to Norm Dicks.

Johnson did not return KUOW's phone calls. David Dicks says he doesn't remember whose idea it was to hire Johnson's firm.

David Dicks: "My guess is, we needed this work to get done, and I said I bet those guys could do it. I'm not sure why we decided to not compete it, and I'm not sure why we chose the mechanism we chose."

The paper trail goes back to a letter from Gerry Johnson to David Dicks. Johnson promised to keep K&L Gates' work on the nonprofit foundation under $20,000. That's the legal limit for no–bid contracts. As state auditors discovered, the Partnership issued a contract for $19,999.

In the following months, the Partnership changed the contract several times. Eventually, K&L Gates got paid more than $50,000.

David Dicks: "That was, I think, the low point in the audit, candidly. I think we should clearly have put that out to bid."

By law, the attorneys' work should not have been privatized at all, let alone without having firms compete for it. It should have been handled by the state's own attorneys.

I should say here that KUOW benefited from one of the two grants the foundation made in its first two years. I was one of 15 journalists who took a week–long study tour of Puget Sound. It was run by a journalism institute from Montana. The Puget Sound Partnership's foundation was the largest funder of that tour.

Remember Tom Luce from Tacoma? The lobbyist and former Norm Dicks staffer became the director of the foundation. Congressman Dicks says he doesn't help his former colleagues with their careers.

Norm Dicks: "I don't do that. They have to go out and get their own clients. They're all very good at that, but I have nothing, I play no role in that whatsoever."

Gerry Johnson with K&L Gates is part of another organization that benefited financially from the Partnership. He cofounded the Cascade Land Conservancy. He's also chairman of the nonprofit group's advisory board.

The Puget Sound Partnership paid $10,000 to sponsor the Conservancy's annual awards breakfast in 2008. A Conservancy spokesman says Gerry Johnson was not involved in soliciting those funds.

What happens on the land inevitably affects the water, especially in the soggy Northwest, where so much water runs off the land. So it's no surprise that an agency trying to restore Puget Sound would work with a land conservancy.

Other government bodies, including Sound Transit and the Department of Natural Resources, also sponsored the Conservancy's awards breakfast. But the Partnership spent six times more money on the event than any other government agency.

Until 2007, David Dicks' brother, Ryan, was a vice president at the Cascade Land Conservancy. A Conservancy spokesman says that, by the time of the awards breakfast, Ryan Dicks was only consulting part time for the group.

State auditors didn't explore the personal connections between the state agency and the private land trust. But they did question the wisdom of spending $10,000 to support a group that was eager to work with the Partnership anyway. Here's auditor Emily Johnson:

Johnson: "With this expenditure to the Cascade Land Conservancy, we really didn't see any clear public benefit or anything that the agency got back for the money they paid."

State Senator Mark Schoesler is a wheat farmer and a critic of the Partnership's practices.

Schoesler: "It's a little too cozy of an arrangement between people with political, family and financial ties."

The Republican from Ritzville says he'll give extra scrutiny to the Partnership's budget in the next legislative session.

Schoesler: "They have to be accountable because it isn't their money, it's yours and mine and every other taxpayer, and we don't expect sweetheart bids and things like that. We expect them to plan and organize the cleanup of Puget Sound."

In response to the state audit that highlighted the illegal contracts and purchases, the Partnership said it had already addressed most of the problems and would fix the rest.

Governor Gregoire ordered a second outside look at the Partnership's finances this summer. That review resulted in a plan to hire a finance manager and provide more training in ethics and contracts at the Partnership. Federal officials also plan an intensive review of the Partnership's operations this fall.

I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2010, KUOW

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