In late March, before they revealed a $500,000 contract from the government of Cambodia, state Sen. Doug Ericksen and former state Rep. Jay Rodne traveled to Phnom Penh and met with Prime Minister Hun Sen at the country’s Peace Palace.

They posed with Hun Sen for photos and Ericksen, R-Ferndale, reportedly praised the country’s widely condemned 2018 elections, which took place amid a crackdown that included shuttering independent media outlets and dissolving the main opposition party.

Ericksen called the vote “free, just, and nonviolent, expressing the wills of the Cambodian people,” according to a March 22 report by Fresh News, a pro-government Cambodian news site, which said the comments were relayed through a government spokesman. The comments echoed earlier remarks Ericksen had made about the elections, which he observed at the invitation of the Hun Sen government.

On April 3, Ericksen and Rodne, who had not publicized their March visit, registered as foreign agents in filings with the U.S. Justice Department, disclosing the $500,000-a-year contract given to their company, PacRim Bridges.

Ericksen’s parlaying of his elected position into a business relationship with the authoritarian Hun Sen regime is attracting condemnation from human-rights activists, local Cambodian Americans, exiled leaders of Cambodia’s opposition party and even a Republican congressman.

U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Florida, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill seeking sanctions against Cambodian leaders over human-rights abuses, blistered Ericksen’s assessment of the country’s elections.

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“There is not a democracy in Cambodia. It’s a sham. It’s a dictatorship. A brutal dictatorship,” Yoho said in a phone interview. “I don’t know Senator Ericksen. I have never talked with him, never met him. But anybody that has a modicum of just a little bit of decency and intelligence would know that that is not a fair and open election.”

Ericksen, who tapped surplus campaign funds to pay for some of his Cambodia travel, has defended the contract as a legitimate second job for a part-time state legislator. According to PacRim’s federal filings, the firm will be paid $41,660 a month to meet with state and federal officials “to promote improved relations between the USA and the Kingdom of Cambodia and legislation that promotes improved relations.”

Asked for comment, Ericksen requested The Seattle Times put questions in an email, citing his busy schedule at the end of the legislative session. He did not directly respond to most of the 10 questions The Times asked about how his business deal came together, but sent a general statement saying his use of surplus campaign funds to pay for some of his travel to Cambodia was made “in accordance with state law …”

He added: “I am looking forward to my work with PacRim Bridges to promote trade and improved cultural relations between the United States and Cambodia.”

In an interview last month, Ericksen said his comments about the Cambodian elections were about the technical aspects, including the smooth operation of the voting machines and requirements to show identification. He has offered no public critique of the Hun Sen government’s internationally condemned crackdown on dissent.

Hun Sen, who has led Cambodia since the mid-1980s, was described by Human Rights Watch in a report last year as an “increasingly dictatorial” ruler, maintaining power with the aid of personally loyal army and police officials. Opposition figures have been jailed on trumped-up charges of conspiring with the U.S. to overthrow the government, the group says.

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Ericksen has been feted by the Cambodian government on multiple trips to the nation. In July 2018, he remained in the country as an invited election observer, even as two other Republican state lawmakers also on the trip cut short their visit after meeting with the U.S. ambassador, who expressed “grave concerns” about their presence being used to provide cover for a sham election.

Cambodians who fled are ‘ashamed,’ ‘extremely shocked’

The Seattle area is home to about 15,000 Cambodian Americans, the third-largest population of any metropolitan area in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. Many fled the country during the 1970s, when the communist Khmer Rouge government carried out a campaign of oppression and genocide that killed millions.

Sameth Mell, chair of the Cambodian American Community Council of Washington, which represents Cambodians up and down the I-5 corridor, said Ericksen has never reached out to the organization.

“Senator Ericksen has not connected with the Cambodian refugee community in Washington state,” said Mell. “It’s really interesting how he now has a $500,000 lobbying contact on behalf of the Cambodian government.”

Hoeun Voeuk, who fled Cambodia in 1980 and now lives in Tacoma, said “a lot of Cambodian Americans that live in Washington state, we feel ashamed that Senator Doug Ericksen supports the corrupt, illegal Hun Sen government … What he is doing is to undermine democracy. We try to work so hard to restore democracy in Cambodia.”

Before the 2018 elections, Hun Sen’s government eliminated the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the leading opposition party that had been gaining influence. The leader of the party, Kem Sokha, was arrested and imprisoned for more than a year, and the CNRP was dissolved.

Given that recent history, “Cambodian Americans in Washington state and other parts of U.S. are extremely shocked” by Ericksen’s business dealings, said Mu Sochua, a former member of the Cambodian parliament and vice president of the CNRP, who fled the country in 2017, fearing arrest.

“It may not be illegal for him to establish that firm, but he has no ethics whatsoever,” said Mu Sochua, speaking from Morocco, where she has been living in exile.

‘Basically a shill’

The Cambodian government has defended the contract as fostering better relations with the U.S.

“I think it is a good idea to ask help from foreigners to defend Cambodia and its people’s interests,” Sok Ey San, a spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, told Radio Free Asia last month.

Bradley Murg, a professor of political science and Asian studies at Seattle Pacific University, said he had a lengthy conversation with Ericksen after raising concerns over the PacRim Bridges contract.

Afterward, Ericksen said he would not handle any “political” work associated with the contract, leaving that up to Rodne. Ericksen said he would work only to promote increased trade between the countries.

“I think that is a slight improvement,” said Murg, who is a Republican. He said increased trade between the U.S. and Cambodia would benefit both nations. But he added it may be hard for Ericksen to credibly maintain such a distinction in a two-person firm.

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Yoho, who has co-sponsored bipartisan legislation imposing sanctions against some Cambodian officials, said the U.S. must be committed to restoring democracy in that country.

The Cambodia Democracy Act passed the U.S. House last year but failed to clear the Senate. The legislation, which has been reintroduced, declares that each of the six Cambodian elections since 1991 was “marked by fraud, intimidation, violence and the government’s misuse of legal mechanisms to weaken opposition candidates and parties.”

Phil Robertson, deputy director for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said he recalls discussing Ericksen’s election-observer trip last year with then-Ambassador William Heidt, who expressed what Robertson called “incredible dismay” over the lawmaker’s praise of the election.

“They were very unhappy Ericksen was showing up and saying, ‘Hey isn’t everything nice,’” Robertson said, speaking by phone from Bangkok, Thailand. “My view is Ericksen is basically a shill for the worst kind of dictatorship.”

A U.S. State Department spokesperson declined to comment on Ericksen’s activities in Cambodia, saying in an email that “his views and actions do not represent those of the federal government.” The spokesperson pointed to past U.S. government statements, which have condemned Cambodia’s elections as “neither free nor fair.”

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‘I don’t know who is fooling who here’

Ericksen’s visits and comments have been used by the Hun Sen government to push back against criticism from the U.S. government. Cambodian media have inflated Ericksen’s credentials by referring to him as a member of the U.S. Senate, as opposed to his actual position as a state senator who represents the 42nd legislative district of Whatcom County.

Ericksen helped run the 2016 campaign for Donald Trump in Washington state, and was given a temporary position in the Environmental Protection Agency as the new administration got started. He later was appointed to a $133,000-a-year permanent job in the regional EPA office, but backed out.

Since Cambodian government representatives visited the Capitol campus in Olympia during an April 2016 meeting that included Ericksen, the lawmaker has made at least four trips to Cambodia that have blurred the lines between his capacity as an elected official and his private or personal time.

That 2016 meeting was considered a standard formality for visiting foreign nationals, according to then-Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, whose office hosted the visit.

After that meeting, Ericksen’s legislative aide emailed Owen’s office asking for guidance on the best way for the lawmaker to contact Cambodian officials during a visit Ericksen planned to make to the country that summer.

The Cambodian officials “all gave him their cards, and he is sending an email asking if they would like to meet with him while he and his family are there and also asking advice on where to travel,” according to the legislative assistant’s email, obtained by The Seattle Times through a public-records request.

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Ericksen confirmed he met with Cambodian officials and business leaders on that trip. He later reported using $1,236 in surplus campaign funds to reimburse himself for a stay at the Sofitel hotel in Phnom Penh, according to records kept by the state Public Disclosure Commission.

All told, Ericksen has reported using at least $4,473 in surplus election-campaign funds on his Cambodia trips, records show. State law allows legislators to use surplus funds for future campaigns, donations to charities or political parties, or to reimburse travel and other expenses relating to their official responsibilities.

Ericksen did not respond to questions about whether the Cambodian government or other groups financed any of his earlier travel.

Complaints have been filed with state Public Disclosure Commission alleging Ericksen and Rodne should have registered as lobbyists. Ericksen has said he won’t be doing any lobbying and said the firm has complied with the law through its federal disclosures.

Aside from questioning Ericksen’s judgment, some critics also wonder what Cambodian leaders are thinking.

“I don’t know who is fooling who here,” said Robertson of Human Rights Watch, questioning how much Cambodia was spending on the contract with a relatively powerless state senator and a former state representative. “If Hun Sen thinks he is going to get a lot out of this $500,000 he is fooling himself.”