State elected officials and their top aides would be barred from lobbying state government for a year after leaving their jobs under a sweeping new ethics bill to be introduced in the Legislature next week.
The proposal, developed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, would try to address the “revolving door” scenario, where public officials use experience and relationships developed working for taxpayers to land lucrative gigs lobbying their former agencies.
“Come hell or high water we are going to fix the ‘Friday to Monday’ problem, where someone concludes their public service on a Friday and becomes a formal paid lobbyist on a Monday morning,” Carlyle said.
The legislation would apply the one-year cooling-off period to all statewide elected officials, legislators and directors of cabinet-level agencies. It also would apply to top staff of the governor, attorney general and other statewide elected officials, as well as senior legislative staff.
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The directors and top staff at smaller state agencies would face a lesser restriction: They’d be banned for a year from lobbying their former agencies, but could immediately go to work influencing other parts of state government.
Details are still being ironed out and could change. But Ferguson and Carlyle say the goal is to broadly apply the new restrictions to positions of power in state government. They said the bill will be filed next week, the start of the 2015 legislative session.
“I think it’s needed for both transparency and also to assure the public there is no unfair advantage for former state officials,” Ferguson said. “It struck me as a common-sense reform.”
At least 32 states have cooling-off periods of a year or more for state legislators and some other public employees, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. Similar restrictions apply to members of Congress and their staffs.
The new ethics-law push in Washington state was prompted in part by a New York Times investigation published in October that scrutinized the fundraising and lobbying ties of Ferguson, a Democrat, and his predecessor in the Attorney General’s Office, Republican Rob McKenna.
The newspaper reported that within months of leaving office following his unsuccessful 2012 run for governor, McKenna and a former top deputy, Brian Moran, were pressing their former colleagues in the AG’s office on behalf of clients including Microsoft and T-Mobile.
In one instance, McKenna used his clout to set up a meeting with Ferguson, who agreed to send a letter, initially drafted by T-Mobile, to federal officials, protesting efforts by its competitors to acquire more of the available wireless spectrum.
In an interview Thursday, Ferguson denied that McKenna had received special treatment. He said the T-Mobile letter was vetted by attorneys in his office’s antitrust unit, which concluded that the company’s position as stated in the letter was aligned with consumer interests.
Still, Ferguson said he believed The New York Times story raised “a legitimate concern of, ‘Hey, who does have access to state government?’ ”
McKenna, in an interview earlier this week, downplayed the need for a new cooling-off period. “I don’t think there is a real problem,” he said.
The proposal also would require disclosure filings for a year from the covered ex-state employees even if they don’t technically lobby, but advise others on how to influence or lobby state government.
Carlyle stressed that he was not suggesting wrongdoing by any individual with the new proposal. “It’s a systems issue,” he said.
While Washington does not have a broad cooling-off period like many other states, state law does prohibit public officials for one year from accepting employment with companies they negotiated or administered contracts with during the previous two years.
The road from top state jobs to lobbying shops is well worn. Several former gubernatorial chiefs of staff have gone on to be high-powered lobbyists. Fred Kiga, who was chief of staff to Gov. Gary Locke, went on to lobby for the international financial firm Russell Investments, and later Boeing, for example.
Cindy Zehnder left her job as chief of staff to Gov. Chris Gregoire in 2009 and joined the lobbying firm Gordon Thomas Honeywell as its chief state lobbyist.
Zehnder called the proposed lobbying restrictions “probably a good conversation to have.” But she said the benefits of such rules need to be balanced with potential effects on recruiting top talent to state government.
“It’s important to have public trust, but it’s also important for people to be able to make a living,” she said.
Ferguson agreed, saying he’s open to discussion of how many state workers should be subject to the proposal. “One thing we’ve really grappled with is where do you draw these lines — who’s in, who’s out? Those aren’t easy lines to draw in some cases,” he said.