See Jane. See Jane run for office. Run, Jane, run!
When King County Council member Jane Hague (R-Bellevue) decided in 1997 that she wanted to hold national office in the National Association of Counties (NACo), the only thing standing in her way appeared to be a lack of campaign funds. She was wrong, and it cost over $100,000 in taxpayer money to prove it.
In 1997, Hague raised $29,555 to campaign for executive office in NACo. Club owner and big-time troublemaker Chris Clifford said Hague wasn't allowed to do anything of the sort—and that the folks she asked for money were, in essence, being offered new and improved access to the ear of a leading council member in exchange for their support.
Who gave? Lobbyists and businesses with issues before the council, including Boeing ($3,000), Weyerhaeuser ($2,000), Seahawks owner Football Northwest ($3,000), major developer Port Blakely Tree Farms ($1,000), and AT&T ($2,500), as well as lobbyists for such leading lights as the Muckleshoot tribe and Blue Cross. If that looks fishy to you, you aren't alone.
Clifford made a formal complaint about Hague's campaign to County Ombudsman Duncan Fowler. Two years later, Fowler says the only two proven ethics violations (of the seven derived from Clifford's original complaint) were that Hague improperly accepted donations from entities with business before the council, and that "a reasonable and prudent person" would believe, when presented with the facts, that an ethical violation had occurred. (The latter ruling is interesting, since it refers not to what Hague did but to how it looks.)
It may look funky to you, a reasonable and prudent person, but apparently the council's own lawyer, James Brewer, didn't agree. Hague contacted him in early 1997 for advice on whether her NACo plans qualified as official county business (therefore allowing her to use county funds). Brewer flipped back a two-page memo saying, in effect, "Sure, yeah, looks good."
And so Hague met with various folk and kicked off the fund-raising process in February 1997. After a campaign that included trips to various regional NACo meetings as well as several ice-cream socials, Hague was unanimously elected to the NACo executive board in July 1997. Her campaign cost $37,774.32; her Florida-based opponent (who conceded) is alleged to have put forth about $100,000.
Then things got less fun and more expensive. Clifford filed a complaint with the Ombudsman's office on September 30, 1997, and Hague was notified of seven specific charges in March 1998. Both Fowler's fact-finding commission and Hague's counsel were retained "out of house," as required by law. Fowler spent $30,000 on his investigation; Hague's defense team, headed by Cyrus Vance Jr., has billed $96,491 to date.
Hague says her participation in NACo was of substantial benefit to the county. "Take a look at the Beltway mentality. They don't understand [the Pacific Northwest]. We are the most important economic area on the Pacific Rim," notes Hague. And as of her 1997 campaign, there were no members of the NACo executive board from west of the Mississippi.
Fowler agreed, stating in the cover letter to the final report that he "[sees] value in the County's involvement in NACo. Likewise the County and the Pacific Northwest as a whole are advantaged by having you serve as an officer of that organization."
According to Fowler's findings, Hague's campaign takes advantage of a large gray area in council fund-raising regulations. On one hand, council members can raise money for their council reelection campaigns, collecting no more than $650 from any individual donor and $1,000 from any PAC. On the other hand, council members may accept gifts for expenses not related to a campaign, but those gifts are limited to $20 per donor. What isn't covered is donations to council members for campaigns for offices that are merely related to their council duties—like NACo.
Of course, you might ask yourself if a reasonable person would read the silence of the law as carte blanche. Hague claims that the law has been read as carte blanche in the past, and that other politicians have conducted similar campaigns in similar ways, pointing to former mayor Norm Rice's bid to head the US Conference of Mayors; she just got noticed for it. "There are any number of examples. I guess I just had a lucky number." Though she believes that she acted with no intentional impropriety, she suggests that the council should look at supplying "an internal fix" for the loophole.
Fowler, on the other hand, thinks that the gray area is a good place for public dialogue. "Here is a place where [voters] should be asking . . . how we want public officials to deal with" King County lobbying on the national level. He suggests that a system of greater accountability, where the law lays out both donation limits and donor expectations, should be set up. One possible solution, he states, might be a presidential campaignstyle system, where donations go to one fund not specific to any candidate and are then disbursed as needed. Clifford, meanwhile, feels that no such funding is desirable: "King County is not comfortable with slush funds."
And there's also the matter of $8,219.32 still owed by Hague's NACo campaign, which spent that much in excess of the $29,555 raised. Hague has committed herself to repaying the money, but don't expect to see the councilwoman from the 11th District out in front of the County Courthouse with a lemonade stand: Hague states that the Washington State Association of Counties has surplus funds on hand and is committed to helping Hague retire her debt.
Hague argues that King County, the Puget Sound region, and even the Northwest have made tangible gains from her high NACo profile. "Just one fly-in [visit] brought us an $18 million grant for summer-jobs use in Washington," she says. "We also gained a $5 million pay-in in lieu of taxes, which compensates us for taxes lost to us because of federal lands [in the area]." She also points to the multimillion dollar Brownfields Showcase Community grant to clean up the Duwamish area as a result of her NACo presence.
Clifford, however, sees a different kind of benefit, and it's all about Jane. "She should resign [NACo]," he says. "The idea that we're benefiting, it's crap. What have they done for us? . . . The county has paid $60,000 in travel expenses, $30,000 for Duncan Fowler's investigation, and over $100,000 on her attorney; it's too much [debt] to carry just for her to be queen for a day."
Queen for a day, possibly a political appointee for some time to come? One of the information sheets given to potential donors points out that as of Hague's 1997 campaign, not only were there no members of the NACo executive board from west of the Mississippi, there were no Republicans. Add the female factor into the mix and suddenly Hague looks good for a plum political appointment provided that, say, George W. Bush is the next guy in the White House. Clifford suggests that this NACo business is less about King County and environs and more about Hague's career above and beyond Bellevue.
And that may be the point for Boeing and Weyerhaeuser and all the other firms who ponied up: a friendly Jane Hague on the council is nice, but a friendly Jane Hague with the ear of a president or Secretary of Commerce down the road would be even nicer.