The Port of Seattle paid $3,000 in consulting fees to state Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle — one of the Legislature's most powerful transportation leaders, a Seattle Weekly investigation has found. The Port also arranged for him to do consulting work for contractors. In both cases, Murray did work for which he was probably qualified, but the desire to hire him came before any apparent need for his skills. The money involved is modest and the consulting arrangement might be legal, but Murray's hiring seemed to be for no other purpose than to do him a favor.
A Waterfront Brawl
E-mails suggest Port of Seattle CEO Mic Dinsmore tried to influence last year's Port Commission election, and two of the five members think he should go.
Murray, who is the House Transportation Committee chair, had actively sought transportation-related consulting work at the Port. And a variety of public documents and internal Port of Seattle e-mails obtained by Seattle Weekly show that the Port and its contractors then found a role for Murray without having an obvious need for his expertise. All the parties, however, claim this was not "make-work."
After examining Seattle Weekly's findings, Murray himself asked the Washington State Legislative Ethics Board for an opinion. "I didn't do anything unethical," Murray says. "One could infer from that e-mail in isolation [that] I was getting hired as a favor."
Port CEO Mic Dinsmore says he hired Murray because of the legislator's great abilities. "I was convinced Ed adds a tremendous amount of value." Most of the five members of the Seattle Port Commission, the Port's governing authority, say the situation seems fine to them. Rookie Commissioner John Creighton, however, finds the arrangement questionable. Says Creighton, a lawyer: "That seems strange. That seems like a conflict of interest. I'd like to look into that."
Being a member of the Legislature is supposed to be a part-time job. In session just a few months of the year, legislators say there are year-round responsibilities that make the $35,254 annual salary too low. The vast majority of lawmakers have other employment to supplement their legislative salaries. In recent years, Murray, despite living in the most expensive city in the state, has not. Last year, Murray began a consulting business and attracted three clients: the Port of Seattle; TAU, a waste disposal firm with ties to the Port; and IBM. Murray says he first approached the Port about consulting work in 2001. That year, he met with Port officials, including Dinsmore, but did not get any consulting work. In 2003, Murray ascended to the chair of the Transportation Committee. Over the past three years, he helped shepherd $12.5 billion in transportation improvements through the Legislature, including many measures that benefited the Port.
The Port of Seattle, King County's $1 billion economic-development government, depends heavily on state-funded highways. Last year alone, the Port's 1,400 acres of industrial waterfront needed freeways for trucks to transport many of 2 million cargo containers to or from the docks. Seattle- Tacoma International Airport handled 29 million passengers last year and relied on Interstate 5 and State Routes 99, 519, and 509 to carry many of those people.
In 2003, Dinsmore and Murray got to know each other better on a trip to Ireland sponsored by the Trade Development Alliance, which organizes educational missions for elected officials and industry leaders. "Before that trip, I think Mic viewed me [as] a gay only," says Murray, who has been the Legislature's most visible and effective openly gay member. After the trip, Murray again pressed the Port for consulting work. This time, he was successful. He signed a contract on Sept. 24, 2004, to do community outreach, strategic planning, message development, organizational advice, liaison activities, and other activities at a rate of $100 an hour for up to $15,000. So far he has only billed and been paid for around $3,000 of work.
In 1999, an ethics complaint was filed over Murray's employment as a temporary staff person at the University of Washington. Although the complaint was dismissed, Murray is still sensitive to any appearance of impropriety about his employment outside the Legislature. He had his own attorney vet the contract with the Port, and the attorney found no problems.
The Port wasn't quite as sensitive to appearances.
Seattle Weekly obtained e-mail from the Port of Seattle through the state Open Records Act. The e-mail documents how the Port and customers regarded Murray's employment.
On June 30, 2005, John Hemingway, CEO of SSA Marine—the world's largest privately held terminal operator and the Port of Seattle's largest marine customer—sent an e-mail to an SSA senior vice president, Andy McLauchlan: "Did Mic ever say anything to you about doing something with Ed Murray. Ed committed to helping him with some consulting work and as a big favor to him wants us to chip in. I would guess 10K or so."
McLauchlan replied on July 6: "I spoke to Terry Finn at the Port of Seattle. He has their legal department reviewing a contract with Ed Murray—it may be one large contract or multiple contracts with each company.
"While Mic and Ed Murray spoke of the consulting contract, Terry is still working on what Murray will actually do. We spoke of helping with local transportation projects, like expansion of 509 to the airport, but there may be a conflict of interest. I suggested having him work on air quality issues, such as the EPA grants or biodiesel—that's where we're headed now, unless you have another idea."
Hemingway forwarded this entire thread to Mic Dinsmore that same day. Dinsmore responded in part, "I really need your help in the Murray issue . . . Yes it is Murray the legislator and chair of the house transportation committee, who is credited for putting forward the 9.5 cent tax and the 8.5 transportation budget. . . . " Dinsmore was referring to Murray's key work pushing the $8.5 billion 2005 Transportation Partnership Program through the Legislature.
Commissioner Creighton is uncomfortable with the way that Murray's contract is referred to in these e-mails. He uses an example from his own work as a lawyer. "In the legal field, you want to avoid ethics violations but also the appearance of ethics violations," Creighton says. "Even if it is ethical, that's one of my issues with the Port, it needs to be run more like a business."
Former Commissioner Molloy is shocked by the e-mails. "What is clear is there is a link to the politics of Ed Murray. 'We'll find you some work for you to do because you are Ed Murray.'"
Port Commission President Pat Davis, however, finds nothing to be concerned about. "It sounds like it was perfectly legal," says Davis. "Everyone in the Legislature has to work. It depends on the expertise. Ed Murray is a hero on transportation and the environment."
Says Murray: "We came to an agreement that I was qualified and it wouldn't violate any ethics rules, but the e-mail out of context would appear that way." Murray doesn't think the e-mails mean that something unethical actually happened. "It's a stretch that you could draw a conclusion that this was done to make work for a legislator," Murray insists. "If someone was making up work for me, I would be in significant trouble."
The troubling appearances do not stop with e-mail, however.
Terry Finn is the Port staff member who drew up the contract and who Murray bills. Finn is also the lobbyist for the Port at the Capitol in Olympia. Finn has no connection to the actual work that Murray performed for the Port and SSA. Says former commissioner Molloy: "Your state political lobbyist should not be involved."
Finn says that he set the whole thing up because he was the Port staff member who knew Murray's "skill set" best. Finn also says the Port was careful to avoid ethical conflicts. "We tried our damnedest that there was no conflict of interest between his work for us and his legislative work. We tried to build as much separation as we could."
The Port's efforts, however, did not include making sure that Murray did not have to ask their legislative lobbyist for money.
Finn says Murray is the only legislator that the Port has on contract, and no other state lawmaker has worked for the Port in the past 10 years.
There is also the matter of Murray's actual work. SSA's McLauchlan and Murray agree that the legislator helped advise the marine company on what alternative technology to employ to clean up truck emissions at terminals in Southern California. Eventually, SSA chose to use liquid natural gas from landfills. "It takes Ed out of this state, so there is no conflict of interest," McLauchlan says. Murray performed the work for SSA, and the company expects to be billed by the Port for Murray's services, McLauchlan says. This pass-through consulting arrangement is legal and commonly used by the Port.
The Port's Finn, however, says that Murray was doing the work on SSA's use of liquid natural gas in Southern California for the Port of Seattle. "We really didn't bill anybody, because we hadn't used the contract to any great degree. Ed was working with us and SSA. It all fits into the same program."
Commissioner Creighton asks: "It might have economic benefit to SSA, but what's the benefit to the Port?"
Since the state constitution prohibits governments from subsidizing private companies, it's a good question—one of many. Despite a lack of support from his fellow commissioners, Creighton hopes to get some answers.