One Question

One Question for a Political Ethicist

By Josh Feit October 30, 2012


One Question

 Earlier today, we detailed a trip that Attorney General Rob McKenna took to Anaheim, California to attend the Conference of Western Attorneys General 2012 Summer Meeting.

We noted that while the $1,500 publicly-funded trip seemed legit because McKenna's days were packed with CWAG events (he was also on a couple of panels), there were some ethical questions. 

McKenna turned his free time into a family trip to Disneyland (he was staying at the Disney Grand Californian Hotel): The public paid for McKenna's wife's room. And McKenna's kids came along too, though the public didn't cover those costs.


Additionally, while staying at the hotel, McKenna took off his AG's hat and put on his gubernatorial candidate's hat. On the evening of his third night, he held a campaign fundraiser at the Grand.

First, I talked to Melanie de Leon, Executive Director of the Washington State Executive Ethics Board, the state board that oversees ethics issues for all of the executive positions in Olympia, from the governor on down to the state auditor. I should note that de Leon's office is staffed by the AG's office, and she works directly under McKenna and his deputy chief of staff, Hunter Goodman. (I feel a little ethically spooked by that ... in fact, Goodman was also on the trip to Anaheim.)

But that's the set up. The board is appointed by the governor.

First, de Leon says there is no ethical issue with having the state pay for a spouse's room on a state trip, saying it's standard for executives; one spouse already has a room, she explains, saying it's "a sunk cost."

De Leon also said even though McKenna took advantage of his time in Anaheim to do a campaign fundraiser at the hotel, he followed the letter of the law (she pointed me to Washington Administrative Code 292-110-020 which says executives can campaign any time as long as they don't use agency facilities), and she said she did not see any ethical issue.

"If he's there for a bonafide reason and attends the meetings and does the work during the day, I don't see any ethical issue with him doing what he wants in the evening, including a fundraiser," she said.

For a second opinon, I turned to an independent professional political ethicist, Judy Nadler, a senior fellow in political ethics at Santa Clara University. (Nadler is, incidentally, the same woman the Seattle Times interviewed for their piece on McKenna's travel record.)

The attorney general is responsible for enforcing the laws of the state, right? And so there should not be even a glimmer of an impropriety coming from such a person. We would like to see no appearance of impropriety by anybody who’s in public life. But as the top legal figure in the state, it’s especially important to absolutely adhere to the letter and spirit of every law. Now, if he went to the conference because the AG’s were meeting at Disneyland, that is a legitimate taxpayer event. But by virtue of the fact that the state paid for his airfare to southern California and his hotel, he then had a campaign fundraiser—to avoid any appearance of impropriety, it probably would have been best for him to absorb the cost of the trip.

If he was there for the conference, he should have been there for the conference.

It is very problematic for individuals who are in office who are also candidates for office. You should not mix those two up. It’s a slippery slope because if you think there’s nothing wrong—I mean "he was there anyway"—but, if he was there for the conference, he should have been there for the conference.

The overarching question is: Was he using the public’s money to campaign to advance his political career? He may not see that, and he may say, "No, no, no, it was just happenstance, I just happen to be there." But the public looks at that and says, “Look, we sent this guy to southern California to learn how to be a better AG and he’s off raising money to run for his next office.” It doesn’t look good. Perception is what drives or destroys public confidence in government.

I informed Nadler that de Leon said it's standard for taxpayers to cover spouse's rooms.

She continued:

It’s quite possible that it’s allowed by law, but the law is the floor not the ceiling. So yes, you abide by the law, but you do have the ability to exceed those standards and do better than what is the minimum requirement.

The governor and first lady of a state often travel together because the first lady has functions that she might be in an official capacity. However, I don’t know any attorney general whose spouses have an official or ceremonial role. So it may be that it is allowed, but I don’t know if you asked the taxpayers, “Was it okay for the attorney general and his wife go to Disneyland with their kids and have the taxpayers pay for it?” I don’t think that would go over very well.

This has every indication of a family vacation. You have your children, you go to Disneyland, which is a resort.

This has every indication of a family vacation. You have your children, you go to Disneyland, which is a resort.

To summarize—it is in part the fact that he appears to be campaigning while on the job as AG and perhaps using this opportunity, and his position as an office holder to advance his political future. But it's also  the fact that, even though it may be allowed, according to the ethics commission, there are plenty of  things that are allowed that aren’t a good idea. Other people could say that’s not an appropriate use of public funds.

When he has a campaign event while on an official trip, it brings up some questions and I think some really legitimate questions.


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