Schellacking

Why does the mayor want to rewrite ethics rules when they seem to serve him so well?

IN JANUARY, NEW MAYOR Paul Schell promised an "open and active communication" with the public and an "end to whining and complaining." Today, he complains that the city's disclosure requirements should be rewritten for public officials such as himself. He particularly dislikes the rules governing the appearance of conflicts of interest. They're "ambiguous," Schell says. He ought to know.

In his recent attempt to reexamine the city's ethics rules, Schell claims he's responding to complaints from city workers. But his motives may be strictly personal. As both multimillionaire businessman and $112,300-a-year mayor, he has been in apparent public/private conflict of interest since his first day on the job.

Schell is, for example, co-owner, director, and stockholder of a parking-equipment company that did $20,000 worth of business with the city last year while he was a Seattle Port commissioner. Also managed by his wife, the company has transacted business with the city since Schell took office. Another Schell company, a security-system-maker, did $14,000 in business with the port last year, $22,000 with the city last year, and $7,400 with the city this year.

On his disclosure reports, the mayor either didn't reveal or wrongly reported some of these transactions. He originally said his companies did $14,000 in business with the city and $875 with the port last year. When questioned about the errors—his $14,000 in business was actually with the port, not the city, and his $875 figure should have been $22,000—Schell termed them a "typographical error" and promised corrections. Last month—six months after the errors were pointed out to him—one error was corrected. He still is reporting his $22,000 in city business as $875, however.

Some conflicts are less obvious, but no less eyebrow-raising. A longtime developer who used public funds for private projects, Schell has supported taxpayer giveaways to friends and supporters who are downtown developers. They include Nordstrom, Pacific Place, the Convention Center, and Wright Runstad, which is developing the public's Pacific Medical Center campus for bookseller Amazon.com and other corporate tenants. That multimillion-dollar sweetheart deal was approved by Schell, orchestrated by his friends, and benefits at least one of the mayor's business partners. Wright Runstad's windfall through lease of the public property was arranged by WR company executive Joel Horn, who is Schell's friend, contributor, campaign treasurer, and adviser.

While he was arranging his company's lease of the hospital land, Horn was also a leader of the mayor's transition team. His duties then, we have now learned, included collecting for the mayor's new office slush fund. Horn arranged for dozens of the city's high-rollers to contribute $250 per year each, for four years, to provide Schell money to pay for dinners, caterers, travel, and assorted office expenses for the mayor, his staff, and his wife. As of a few months ago, the fund was at $18,000, thanks in part to such contributors as land-use attorney Judy Runstad, wife of Horn's boss at Wright Runstad; Pacific Place's Jeff Rhodes, Jeff Brotman, and Herman Sarkowsky; the Convention Center's Jim Ellis; and Amazon.com board member Tom Alberg, co-owner of a hotel with the mayor.

Schell says it's niggling situations like these—"equating appearance and substance"—that necessitate changes in the ethics law. He is drawing up his own version of how the Seattle Commission on Ethics and Elections should regulate public disclosure.

It's not clear, however, why he finds the laws so "onerous," to use his word. Schell has been an elected official for most of this decade, and his companies have done business with federal, state, and local governmental agencies without a hitch. In fact, despite his private firms' many public contracts (totaling more than $60,000 in just the past couple of years), neither the port nor the city has investigated his apparent conflicts of interest. Additionally, even though some of the mayor's slush-fund contributors stand to gain from current or pending city transactions—and thus are prohibited by city ethics laws from contributing to an office fund—no probe of those possible violations has been launched.

So it's obvious, as the mayor says, that the ethics rules need changing. But perhaps not in the way he thinks. If a mayor can repeatedly wield the influence of his office to directly or indirectly benefit his and his cohorts' private interests, then the laws do indeed need rewriting—in order to tighten, not loosen, loopholes. It may be, as the mayor also says, all about appearances, which can be deceiving. But even now, who can tell?

 
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