Ethics Board dismisses GOP senator’s complaint against Inslee
by John Stang
Sen. Don Benton of Vancouver discusses bills scheduled for committee review with staffer Alison Mendiola.
A state ethics board on Wednesday dismissed a complaint filed by Sen. Don Benton against Gov. Jay Inslee.
Benton, a prominent Republican, alleged that Inslee unlawfully involved himself in a labor dispute by removing Washington State Patrol officers as escorts for state grain inspectors at Port of Vancouver's United Grain Corp.'s export facility in early July. Inslee had kept the officers in place for eight months as United Grain and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local No. 4 engaged in a bitter lockout. It has now gone on for the past one-and-a-half years.
On Wednesday, Kathryn Wyatt, acting executive director of the Washington State Executive Ethics Board, wrote that the board does not have jurisdiction in this matter, and that Benton's complaint is not covered in the state's Ethics in Public Service Act.
Benton has 20 days to request that the board review its lack-of-jurisdiction ruling. Benton could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
"Don Benton got his name in the newspaper and Senate Republicans did their best to promote this frivolous and totally unsubstantiated complaint," Inslee spokesman David Postman wrote in an email. "It’s unfortunate they couldn’t have put their effort into doing something productive to find a real solution."
Benton, deputy majority leader of the Majority Coalition Caucus — an alliance of 24 Republicans and two Democrats that controls the state Senate — sent his written complaint to the executive ethics board a week ago.
Last week, Benton wrote, "During the last month, Governor Inslee has unlawfully involved himself in a labor dispute, using his executive authority in an attempt to force a private corporation to negotiate with a labor union. He has also failed in his basic obligation to ensure the safety of public employees in the performance of their duties. By his failure to act, he has jeopardized a multibillion dollar industry in our state."
The bitter labor dispute is taking place at the Port of Vancouver's United Grain Corp.'s export facility. ILWU Local No. 4 and United Grain began negotiating a new contract in August 2012. In February 2013, United Grain locked out its union workers, alleging one of them tried to sabotage machinery at the site. Since then, the facility has used non-union employees, while a nasty labor showdown erupted with the National Labor Relations Board alleging misconduct on both sides.
The Washington State Patrol provided escorts for Washington Department of Agriculture's grain inspectors visiting the facility for eight months. Inslee had hoped that the two sides would resolve their differences during that period. In late June, the governor discontinued the escorts because the labor battle had not been resolved. In early July, the state agricultural department decided to stop the inspections due to safety concerns. In turn, that stopped grain shipments from the facility.
On July 23, Benton sent a letter to Clark County Commissioner Tom Mielke to request sheriff's deputies as escorts for the state grain inspectors. He wrote that letter as deputy majority leader of the state Senate. Benton and Mielke's professional relationship is complicated. In May 2013, Mielke and fellow commissioner David Madore — both donors to Benton's 2012 re-election campaign — appointed Benton as the director of the Clark County environmental services division, despite Benton's apparent lack of qualifications for the job.
The county commission formally asked that the sheriff's department provide escorts, the Columbian newspaper reported. However, Sheriff Garry Lucas declined to provide deputies for the inspectors — even if United Grain paid for their time — because he believes law enforcement should be neutral in a labor dispute, the Columbian reported. The federal government also declined to get involved in the escort issue for the same reason.