OLYMPIA — As Gov. Jay Inslee’s staff in March and April swarmed to acquire scarce medical gear and draft Washington’s extensive stay-home restrictions to curb the coronavirus, a familiar name peppered them with emails: Brian Bonlender.
A longtime ally who worked for Inslee when he was a congressman, the governor in 2013 appointed Bonlender director of the state Department of Commerce.
He stepped down from that role in January 2019 — and less than a month later registered as a lobbyist.
On behalf of a construction company, Bonlender inquired whether a privately owned project could continue construction as “affordable housing” under the state’s virus restrictions, according to emails obtained through public-records requests.
In other messages, Bonlender pitched the governor’s office about potential supplies of ventilators and COVID testing gear.
And working on behalf of the At-sea Processors Association, Bonlender sent emails in the days and hours before Inslee’s stay-home announcement, seeking assurances that commercial-fishing operations would be deemed an “essential” business and able to keep operating.
In an email to The Seattle Times in response to questions, Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee wrote that “Staff does not recall a point where commercial fishing and shellfish weren’t a part of the essential business of food production.”
Regardless, a week later after Inslee’s stay-home announcement, the governor issued updated guidance that included making explicit that commercial fishing was essential.
“People come to me because I’m good at sorting through complicated policy and political situations, determining the art of the possible and achieving it,” Bonlender, 50, wrote in an email to The Seattle Times. “Most of that work is strategic advice and planning, but sometimes it also involves lobbying.”
Bonlender’s quick move from public life to lobbyist is far from unique.
Nearly 1 in 5 of Washington’s roughly 800 registered lobbyists previously worked in state government or elected office, according to an analysis of Washington Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) records by The Seattle Times and Northwest News Network.
That includes roughly 60 lobbyists who came from high-ranking public positions, according to the analysis, which cross-referenced PDC lobbying records with state employment information, as well as LinkedIn profiles.
They include former chiefs of staff of governors and lieutenant governors, Cabinet secretaries and deputy directors for state agencies. Several are former state lawmakers or attorneys for the Legislature.
Government-reform advocates say the “revolving door” phenomena creates the potential for powerful interests to influence public servants who could be in line to land a job outside government.
Then, as lobbyists, former officials can use their extensive knowledge and contacts to potentially exercise outsized influence on policy and legislation.
At least 33 states have some type of restrictions in place to provide a “cooling-off” period before public servants can begin lobbying.
Washington has no such law — but it’s not for lack of trying.
Since 2015, a handful of lawmakers have sponsored bills to require at least a one-year cooling-off period.
Sponsored by Democrats, often with Republican co-sponsors, lawmakers have voted the proposals out of legislative committees. But despite no formal opposition, the bills have never been brought to the House or Senate floors for a vote.
Advocates — like longtime bill sponsor Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle — say it’s difficult to get lawmakers to pass bills that could limit their future careers, or those of government staffers.
“The slow winter fog of political death seems to find its way to this bill every single year,” said Carlyle.
“I wanted to see my children grow up”
Bonlender’s argument on behalf of the construction company Katerra to allow a private-housing project in Seattle’s University District for college students to continue during restrictions for most construction was “a stretch,” Inslee staffers concluded. They told him that project did not qualify as essential, according to emails.
Those messages came after Bonlender in March assured Katerra it had the blessing of Kirkland Mayor Penny Sweet — with whom he had been in contact — to continue a different project, known as Lifebridge, a major residential site there.
Other offers by Bonlender to help procure ventilators and COVID testing equipment in March and April don’t appear to have ultimately materialized.
Bonlender said he tried to help as officials scrambled to compete against other states for scarce pandemic supplies.
A Seattle resident, Bonlender said his switch to lobbying came after years of long hours in public service. He estimated that only about a quarter of his workload is lobbying.
“I left the state because I wanted to see my children grow up,” he wrote in an email. “After over 20 years of public service and the last six commuting daily from North Seattle to Olympia in a 24/7 job, it was just time.”
Bonlender isn’t the most recent high-profile example.
In May 2019, state Sen. Guy Palumbo, a Democrat from Maltby, Snohomish County, stepped down the same day he announced he’d be joining Amazon. PDC records show he registered as a lobbyist within weeks.
Palumbo that year sponsored legislation to require state agencies to adopt cloud computing for new IT investments, a measure that could have benefited Amazon. That bill, SB 5662, ultimately stalled.
This year, Palumbo lobbied for Amazon on behalf of an unsuccessful bill that would have allowed King County to impose a big-business tax, according to PDC records. It came after the Seattle City Council repealed its plan to tax large employers after opposition by Amazon and others. The council this summer passed a new big-business tax.
Palumbo, an early Amazon employee, declined to comment. In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson said the company didn’t always agree with his votes in the Legislature.
But, “Guy was one of the first 800 employees at Amazon, and after leaving he built a career as a fierce advocate for issues that we care about, like transportation infrastructure and education funding, so bringing him back was a natural fit,” according to the spokesperson.
Another recent example is former Inslee executive policy director Matt Steuerwalt. He left the governor’s office in January 2017 — and joined a high-powered lobbying firm by April of that year, according to state records.
That firm, Insight Strategic Partners, was founded by Gov. Christine Gregoire’s former chief of staff, Martin Loesch. It boasts a long list of clients including Lyft, Puget Sound Energy and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“I left Governor Inslee’s service when my elder son was entering middle school because there was no way to work as hard as my job required and be a good father and husband,” Steuerwalt wrote in an email.
Washington’s ethics law “toothless”
At least 33 states require a cooling-off period, according to the advocacy group Public Citizen. Of those, 29 states have prohibitions on officials in both the legislative and executive branches.
A minimum two-year period is needed to be effective, said Craig Holman, one author of the Washington, D.C.-based group’s 2019 report, which examines state laws.
With that, “you have a sufficient time in which there is some turnover in either the legislative or executive branch,” said Holman.
Washington has an ethics law geared toward preventing former state employees from working on a contract or regulatory matter for a private employer, if they previously worked directly on that contract or matter for the state.
But that law generally isn’t a barrier for officials who become lobbyists. Carlyle described it as, “So narrow that it’s rendered toothless.”
Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, D-Federal Way, sponsored a cooling-off bill for the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions.
HB 1067 originally included one-year cooling-off restrictions for statewide elected officials and legislators, heads of Cabinet agencies, and chiefs of staffs or top staffers in the executive and legislative branch.
In a public hearing, Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, suggested strengthening it to two years. The House State Government & Tribal Relations Committee approved that stronger version in both 2019 and 2020. But it failed to advance.
“We don’t want to say there’s no role for lobbying, of course there is,” said Walsh, adding later: “But I think having a good buffer zone and a strong buffer between when you are making policy on behalf of the people and working on behalf of specific interests” is a good idea.
Since 2015, no one has ever signed into a House or Senate committee public hearing in opposition to any of the proposals, according to legislative records.
“And nobody ever will,” said Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who since 2015 has requested cooling-off legislation by lawmakers.
“My sense is that a bill that directly impacts legislators is going to get a second and maybe a third look,” said Ferguson. “And that’s what’s going on here, I don’t think it’s a big secret.”
Lawmakers also consider concerns by legislative staffers about their future careers, said Carlyle.
As this year’s legislative session wound down, a potential compromise emerged that weakened the proposal to a one-year period applying only to former elected officials.
Carlyle said he supported those changes — which would have amended SB 5033, his broader one-year cooling-off proposal — as a step forward. That also stalled.
Pellicciotti this year is running for state treasurer.
When he returns to Olympia next year, Carlyle said he’ll focus on the pandemic response, the economic downturn and climate change. But he plans to again sponsor a cooling-off bill.
Despite Washington’s strong ethics reputation, said Carlyle, “This is one of the gaping holes that remains.”
This story was produced in conjunction with Northwest News Network, a collaboration of public radio stations in Washington and Oregon.