An investigator hired by the Port of Seattle Commission found a number of improper expenses by commissioners, mostly travel-related, and the need for better policies governing the ethics of part-time elected commissioners.
An investigator hired by the Port of Seattle Commission found a number of improper expenses by commissioners, mostly travel-related, and said the agency lacked adequate policies to govern commissioners’ ethics.
Investigator Susan Coskey of the Seabold Group reported about $3,000 in improper expenses charged to Port credit cards. All were eventually repaid, Coskey wrote in a summary of her findings reviewed by commissioners in a closed session Oct. 11. The Seattle Times has obtained a copy of the report.
A majority of commissioners have said Coskey’s findings should lead to a clearer ethics policy and that the commission should assign an outside agency to police its behavior. It is difficult, Coskey reported, for Port staff to enforce rules that apply to employees but may be seen as vague by commissioners.
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First-term Commissioner Rob Holland ran up more improper expenses than his peers, according to Coskey’s review. He also had an inappropriate photo on his cellphone.
Holland charged at least $1,200 to his Port credit card for personal expenses, much of it involving several international and domestic trips.
Coskey’s 31-page review does not detail the expenses. Holland says most were for food and drink and travel items such as magazines. (The Times has requested detailed commission travel records from the Port.) Holland said he “was not aware” of Port policies prohibiting such spending.
Coskey noted that some of Holland’s improper expenses came after he had been “instructed by staff on appropriate expenses.”
Holland repaid the Port, but it took him several months in most cases. He was unemployed, he said in an interview, and “down and out.” He now works for an employment program run by King County.
Holland also had a photo of a man’s naked rear end on his Port cellphone. It was discovered by a Port employee when Holland brought in his phone for a service upgrade.
A friend took the picture as a “prank,” Holland said, adding he didn’t know it was on the phone. The report says he agreed to have staff monitor his Port phone in the future. The state Auditor’s Office is also investigating commissioners’ expenses as part of a routine Port audit. That review is expected to be done by the end of the year.
All five commissioners — who are paid $6,000 annually for the part-time elected positions and reimbursed for up to $12,000 in legitimate expenses — were cited in Coskey’s review.
John Creighton put $776 in personal expenses on his Port credit card. Creighton repaid most charges promptly. But it took him nine months to repay a $544 bill for hotel and related expenses “tacked on” to a Port trip, according to Coskey’s report.
Creighton said in an interview that the charge “slipped” his mind for a while.
Gael Tarleton repaid $941 in charges, almost all related to airfare.
The largest was a $716 charge for the middle leg of a three-part trip from China to British Columbia and then to Nova Scotia. The first and last legs were for Port business; the middle was for a conference related to her former job at the University of Washington.
Tarleton promptly repaid the $716. She said she didn’t know it was improper at the time she submitted her expenses. “There was no policy that said you couldn’t have the Port pay for a trip, then reimburse the Port,” she said in an interview.
Bill Bryant charged the Port $115 for meals deemed improper. Coskey also noted that two commissioners asked if Bryant had a potential conflict when he visited Eastern Washington as a Port of Seattle ambassador because the private company he founded helps food growers export products.
The Port’s chief lawyer had advised Bryant, the commission president, that he didn’t have a conflict. But that opinion was “apparently not shared with the entire commission,” Coskey wrote.
“I took it seriously,” Bryant said of making sure he didn’t have a conflict. “And I did it beforehand.”
Coskey found that Commissioner Tom Albro had $105 in improper charges for meals with other commissioners.
Coskey found that existing Port policy about meals — which does not allow for reimbursing meals between and among Port employees — were not clear to commissioners.
She also noted the commission lacks a mechanism by which it “identifies, evaluates or responds to potential breaches of policy, ethics” or conflicts of interest.
Bryant said he hopes the commission will turn over Coskey’s findings to an “outside ethics board.” That independent authority should then determine what, if anything, commissioners did wrong.
“We want to be accountable. We don’t want a double standard for commissioners and employees,” Tarleton said.
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org