The City of Tukwila recently convened their Ethics Board to review an ethics complaint filed against Tukwila City Councilman De’Sean Quinn. Despite the fact that the board’s own findings confirmed the facts of the complaint, the Tukwila Ethics Board gave Councilman Quinn a pass, thereby defeating the purpose for which the board was created in the first place. This raises larger questions. What is the purpose of an ethics board? Who benefits from ethics board coverups?
Not every city in Washington State has an ethics board , but the City of Tukwila, located just south of Seattle created their Ethics Board on August 4, 2014. This was codified in Tukwila City Ordinance 2447, approved by the council and signed by Tukwila City Mayor Jim Haggerton. The board has largely existed on paper without much activity until this author filed an ethics complaint against Tukwila City Councilman De’Sean Quinn (background and source documents are linked below).
Tukwila largely modelled their Code of Ethics on the Washington State Ethics laws, codifiedin RCW 42.52. Some changes were made to make it applicable to the city. When a real violation of the ethics laws by an elected official is discovered by a citizen, filing a formal complaint with the relevant ethics board is the only option to address ethics violations committed by elected officials.
This author’s complaint against Councilman Quinn was a logical outcome of an ongoing investigation into Quinn’s failure to follow campaign finance laws. A variety of complaints were also filed with the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) against Quinn for violating many campaign finance laws. As part of this investigation, it was also discovered that Quinn violated the City of Tukwila’s Code of Ethics.
Mr. Quinn failed to disclose the fact that he was on the Board of Directors of a non-profit environmental corporation called “Forterra.” He was also on the board of a for-profit corporation also controlled by Forterra. (More on this below.) He hid these cozy relationships from his official candidate’s financial affairs documents filed with the Washington State PDC (until this author filed a complaint). He also failed to disclose these relationships when he promoted, approved and voted for a $76,000 grant by the City of Tukwila to Forterra (Contract #16-112). This dual failure to disclose these board positions at Forterra, while also failing to recuse himself from the vote to financially benefit Forterra, looks like an intentional cover-up.
Under both Washington State and Tukwila Municipal Code, this is a clear violation of the ethics laws. A complaint was filed with the Tukwila’s Ethics Board, following the process defined in the ordinance. The Tukwila Ethics Board convened, and according to their minutes and report, their findings confirmed evidence of a violation, but they chose to ignore it. No warning was issued. No sanction was made. Not even a slap on the wrist as a warning to others. At least the Public Disclosure Commission issued a warning letter noting Quinn’s legal violations of the campaign finance laws.
These recent actions in the City of Tukwila raise troubling ethical concerns. Apparently, it is now acceptable policy for elected officials to disguise their business interests and relationships with organizations that receive large sums of money from the same local government where they hold political office. Despite state law and local ordinance, if that politician promotes the contracts or grants, fails to recuse himself, and votes to approve the money – all is well. In the exceptionally rare instance where a concerned citizen discovers a violation of the ethics laws and files a complaint, then the “ethics board” will convene and pretend there is nothing to be seen here. This is a perfect system to justify corruption and ethics violations.
I attended a Tukwila City Council meeting recently and brought up my concerns about this issue, in a very friendly way. However, this is not enough, and it seems that some soul searching and policy reform is in order at the City of Tukwila. Why even have an ethics board if it only exists to hide ethical violations? If the code of ethics has no meaning, then why even put this in the law? How many other times have politicians voted to reward their friends or corporations with special taxpayer grants? Is this just business as usual?
There is something strange about the Forterra Corporation
Possibly a bigger story to the ethical code coverup program in the City of Tukwila involves Forterra, and it appears that much more citizen watchdog attention should be directed at this “non-profit” corporation. The Board of Directors of this organization include other politicians in addition to Tukwila Councilman Quinn – like King County Executive Dow Constantine (who also failed to disclose his association with this organization in his Financial Affairs Statement). Forterra seems to be collecting a variety of insider grants and contracts from these cities and other local governments. This is convenient if you can convince politicians and senior level bureaucrats to join your Board of Directors.
Forterra, which promotes the tagline “For the people. For the Land. Forever” was previously known as the Cascade Land Conservancy, until they changed their name in late 2011. Name changes are common in the land control and grant game business. “One Thousand Friends of Washington became” became “Futurewise” (Think “Hirst Decision”). “The Northwest Ecosystem Alliance” evolved into “Conservation Northwest.” These are just a few examples. Forterra controls or owns hundreds of millions of dollars of land in the state (150,000+ acres). More recently, they have focused on acquiring land in urban areas and collecting grant funds to play in the urban development business.
In a recent announcement by the Port of Seattle about a $1 million “eco-grant” fund, it was reportedly announced that 45% of these funds would go to Forterra to “manage” a tree replanting “mitigation” scheme near SeaTac airport. The Port of Seattle created this fund to make up for the 3,000 trees they removed, which angered local residents. However, it isn’t clear how transferring so many tax dollars to this “non-profit” corporation will actually help any of the people in the local community. Referring to the non-profit status of Forterra, it appears that a new for-profit corporation (Forterra Strong Communities Fund Manager LLC) was created last year by many of the same people including on the board Tukwila Councilman Quinn and King County Executive Dow Constantine (and which also wasn’t disclosed in his financial disclosure paperwork see here and here). This author filed a complaint about this as well, and this new for-profit corporation quickly changed their list of officers to remove Quinn and others from the official board last month.
Something doesn’t smell right here, and it merits further research. “Forterra” means “For the Earth,” which is a cool sounding name if you want to project a Green image. However, this organization is becoming dependent on taxpayer grant dollars (these 41 paid staffers create a lot of overhead). There also appears to be a pattern of behavior using elected politicians who are board members to approve and transfer those same grant dollars to keep the greenbacks flowing. Perhaps this green image might be referring to the color of money more than trees. The love of money may indeed be the root of all evil, and the quest to get easy money from government might encourage politicians to break a few ethical rules along the way. This certainly happened in Tukwila.
OUR CONSTITUTION BEGINS WITH THE PHRASE “WE THE PEOPLE.” IT WAS THE FOUNDER’S INTENT THAT GOVERNMENT BE CREATED BY THE PEOPLE, TO SERVE THE PEOPLE. IT WASN’T THEIR INTENTION FOR THE PEOPLE TO SERVE THE GOVERNMENT. IT WAS ALWAYS INTENDED THAT GOVERNMENT WHICH FAILED TO SERVE THE PEOPLE SHOULD BE “ALTERED OR ABOLISHED.” UNTIL WE RETURN TO THE FOUNDER’S INTENT, WE REMAIN WE THE GOVERNED…
Background articles, links and source documents:
Washington State Law – RCW 42.52 “Ethics in Public Service”
(Direct Link to PDC website showing all correspondence related to complaint #16801 here)
(Direct Link to PDC website showing all correspondence related to complaint #17965 here)
(Direct Link to PDC website showing all correspondence related to complaint #20957 here)
PDC Warning Letter to De’Sean Quinn dated June 7, 2017 – confirms violations of a variety of campaign finance laws related to Complaint #16801 and #17965.
City of Tukwila September 6, 2016 Minutes – (see resolution 1891) – no reference of conflicts or record of recusal by Quinn
Forterra Strong Communities Fund Manager, LLC – WA State Secretary of State filed documents (note how this for-profit organization suddenly changed their officers list on June 2 of this year after Glen Morgan exposed the truth about Councilman Quinn being on this board and not disclosing this fact on his financial affairs documents)
King 5 News – Port of Seattle gives $1 million in Eco-Grants
(Direct Link to PDC website showing all correspondence on Complaint #17442 here)
The Persecution and Show Trial of Representative Melanie Stambaugh (article about how the Legislative Board of Ethics at the state level is out of control in their own way)