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Public Records Help Washington Watchdogs Sniff Out Corruption

John Ryan

And now for something completely different: It's time for your KUOW civics trivia quiz! Now that we've got you on the edge of your seat, here's your quiz host, KUOW's John Ryan.


See if you can guess where this bit of political rhetoric comes from (here's a hint: think Washington state):

"Trust and confidence in governmental institutions is at an all–time low. High on the list of causes of this citizen distrust are secrecy in government and the influence of private money on governmental decision making."

It sounds like it could have been written by Occupy Seattle protesters. Or maybe by the tea party. But the statement actually accompanied a ballot measure that Washington voters passed back in 1972.

Feigenbaum: "We were coming off the turbulent 1960s, the civil rights movement. There were people marching in the streets, and there was at least a general feeling or a general sense that government was not being as responsible to the electorate as it might have been."

Bennett Feigenbaum is 80 years old. He recently accepted an award from the Washington Coalition for Open Government for his work 40 years ago. He chaired the effort to pass Initiative 276. It aimed to force politicians to disclose secrets — like their own finances and who gave how much to their campaigns.

The coalition backing the measure was broad. It ranged from the Young Republicans of King County to the Washington Environmental Council. Feigenbaum says not everyone in the open government coalition was a fan of using the initiative process. But they all agreed it was better than waiting for elected officials to expose the skeletons in their own closets.

Feigenbaum: "It certainly seemed clear to all of us that the initiative process was the appropriate way. It was not reasonable to expect the elected officials to regulate themselves."

Voters approved the initiative in a landslide.

Shortly after the measure passed, business groups, school boards and legislators tried unsuccessfully to weaken it or get it revoked. Controversy centered on the measure's campaign finance requirements. But I–276 made government secrets of all kinds harder to keep.

Citizens and journalists today would have a much harder time sniffing out corruption without the public records provisions approved 40 years ago. Elected officials have added dozens of exemptions, or loopholes, since then. But Washington's public records act remains one of the strongest in the country.

A new public radio study finds that Washington state has some of the nation's best safeguards against corruption by public officials. The State Integrity Investigation ranked Washington 3rd nationwide. Only Connecticut and New Jersey had a lower risk of corruption.

While activists and journalists welcome the relatively easy access to records in Washington, it can cause embarassment, expense or even gridlock for public agencies.

Allyson Brooks is the State's Historic Preservation Officer. She says one person has been harassing her office by requesting 22,000 emails.

Brooks: "It's tens of thousands of pages, and they're protected by federal law: graves, burials, archaeological sites. We have to go through every page, line by line by line. We don't have the budget to do this anymore."

Even though Washington has one of the strongest public record laws in the land, that doesn't mean it's always easy to find out what public officials are up to. Gloria Howell spent nearly three years and thousands in legal fees to get records out of the Skamania County Auditor.

Howell: "My name is Gloria Howell, I live in a small rural town, Stevenson, Washington, in the Columbia River gorge. I have lived there all my married life, which is 52 years."

Howell's daughter had worked for the county auditor for 17 years before being fired in 2006. Gloria Howell had also heard complaints about the auditor from other friends in the small town. She heard he had exorbitant travel expenses and had even gotten an online MBA at county expense. Only one person had approved the $15,000 cost of the MBA: the auditor himself.

Howell: "I thought that's really strange, Maybe we ought to look and see what he's been doing, maybe we should go for the public records."

Howell requested records of the auditor's purchases and travel and other documents. The auditor, Mike Garvison, did not release those public records. That really got her goat.

Howell: "That's our right, that is our right. Just because you're an elected official doesn't give you the right to decide what's best for us."

In fact, that's exactly what the 40–year–old public records law says, in surprisingly vivid language. I asked Howell to read a bit of it.

Howell (reading): "The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created."

Ryan: "I'll tell you, I know that passage well because I file lots of public records requests in my line of work, and the first time I read that, I got a tingle."

Howell: "It does something to you!"

So. Howell ended up filing a lawsuit to get the records, and she won.

The records revealed Garvison had made $87,000 in unauthorized expenses.

Garvison resigned shortly after being forced to give up the records.

Eventually, the county sheriff and the state auditor investigated. They found Garvison had squandered public resources and broken state law. The investigations also found that some of his expense records had been destroyed. That destruction has Garvison in the most trouble now. Here's Gloria Howell:

Howell: "When you're white collared, it seems like some things get brushed under the carpets. But these public documents, once again, this act that the state of Washington has, it's a class C felony, he's been charged with two different counts."

Garvison pled not guilty to the felony counts of destroying public records in January.

The former Skamania County auditor is scheduled to go on trial in neighboring Clark County in July in connection with ordering his staff to destroy public records.

Garvison now lives in Ohio. He did not return KUOW's phone calls.

If Garvison gets a government job in Ohio, he might face less scrutiny from citizen watchdogs. While the State Integrity Investigation gave Washington a B– for government transparency, Ohio got a D.

I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW

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