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Senate GOP power player wants Inslee punished over labor dispute

Sen. Don Benton of Vancouver discusses bills scheduled for committee review with staffer Alison Mendiola.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, wants a state ethics board to investigate and punish Gov. Jay Inslee for removing Washington State Patrol escorts from grain inspectors at a Port of Vancouver labor lock-out site.

The Washington State Executive Ethics Board must first decide whether it has jurisdiction before assigning an investigator. The jurisdiction question is expected to be answered in a few days.

Benton, deputy majority leader of the Majority Coalition Caucus — an alliance of 24 Republicans and two Democrats that controls the state Senate — sent his unusual written complaint to the executive ethics board on Wednesday. Inslee spokesman David Postman had not seen the complaint as of Friday afternoon, and declined to comment on its specifics.

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. International Longshore and Warehouse Union 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, Postman said. 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.

"Governor Inslee is effectively forcing a private corporation to shut down until it negotiates with its union," Benton complained to the ethics board. He said United Grain Corporation has offered to pay for county or state law enforcement to escort the state grain inspectors. Benton continued, "In failing to ensure the safe conduct of grain inspectors, Governor Inslee intentionally refrains from a duty imposed upon him by law."

But the Clark County sheriff has also reportedly declined to provide escorts.

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 him 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 Tuesday.

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