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Wednesday, December 11, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Scrubbing away the grit in the gears of government

Special to The Times

When we rail about breaches of government ethics and accountability, or fiscal mismanagement, we typically focus on the glaring cases. Like the $34 million surprise gap in the Seattle School District's budget, and the blistering audit of Seattle City Light. Or $700,000 in fraudulent billings paid to one vendor by the State Liquor Control Board.

Equally worrisome are somewhat less egregious ethical transgressions at government workplaces in Olympia, the Puget Sound region and Eastern Washington.

Reports released by State Auditor Brian Sonntag's office in recent months show how deeply embedded the grit has become in the gears of government.

One case, outlined in a "whistleblower report" from Sonntag, describes a state Sentencing Guidelines Commission research investigator, Ed Vukich, using his work computer for a four-year, 3,100-entry record of personal banking transactions and a 400-entry car-care log. He also composed an advertisement and personal letters on his work computer, according to the auditor's report.

Replying to Sonntag, Ida Leggett, the commission's executive director, confirmed the report's findings of fact, though she disputed the seriousness of the actions. Nonetheless, she said she'd seek to prevent similar cases in the future.

The commission had said that before. The prior executive director, Roger Goodman, quietly resigned in April 2000, before Sonntag's office — in another whistleblower report — confirmed he had used his work computer for various personal purposes.

Goodman conceded personal use of his computer, but claimed other employees using his password were responsible for visits to adult Web sites linked to his computer. After Leggett replaced Goodman, commission staff notified Sonntag that ethics training had followed and flatly acknowledged "personal use of state property is not permitted." Right.

Reached last week after attending a state-sponsored ethics seminar, Leggett told me the commission's updated ethics policies don't address matters such as personal spreadsheet software on government computers. She added that when in doubt, employees should think deeply, and ultimately seek their own "comfort level."

Things are getting less comfortable. Last week, the state's Executive Ethics Board hand-delivered to the commission's office copies of citizen complaints against Vukich and Leggett. The complaint against Vukich states he continues to use his work computer for personal purposes.

The four-item complaint against Leggett includes assertions she "continues to use staff for personal services" and "continues to work less than 20 hours a week." The board's investigation could result in anything from no action to fines. Both Leggett and Vukich told me these latest allegations are untrue.

Another case involves the former Shoreline Community College associate dean of business administration, James N. Jory. He helped draft a school policy against personal use of work computers, but his own contained 13 e-mails related to his outside work as an attorney, plus a whopping 71,715 graphic images and movies containing adult-oriented material.

At its meeting next month, the state ethics board could consider filing a complaint, based on the whistleblower report.

The college was earlier cited for sidestepping competitive bids on machining equipment, awarding financial aid to ineligible recipients, online stock trading by an employee on a work computer, and operation of a private sports camp by an employee using school facilities.

A recent Sonntag audit also reveals problems when two employees took unpaid leave at the University of Washington Medical Center. They got and kept pay and benefits totaling $29,871 because proper forms weren't submitted to a computer system. Previously, Sonntag found that medical-center personnel exercised insufficient controls over cash receipts, misappropriated petty cash and improperly accepted a gift.

Then there's Ferry County Sheriff Pete Warner, who — as described in another recent Sonntag audit — transferred title of three county-owned vehicles to himself and another to the undersheriff. Their combined value was about $20,000. The sheriff also charged $13,894 for parts and labor on one of the cars, once in his name, to a federal grant.

County officials pledge none of this will happen again. Good. The state had already issued four findings in previous audits of the county for noncompliance with federal grant requirements or lack of fiscal safeguards.

"Disseminating" ethics guidelines isn't enough. The real issues are institutional leadership and workplace culture. The idea is to be beyond reproach, not detection. Incremental steps help, too. More government employers should provide personal Internet access to employees in lounge areas — it could be cheaper in the end. More government employees need to spring for their own messaging devices.

Regrettably, the ethics board — which pursues complaints stemming from citizen actions and some of Sonntag's whistleblower reports — has a three- to six-month backlog. It badly needs more than one investigator.

Gov. Gary Locke and state legislators need to take ethics violations more seriously.

Corporations can sidestep their promises of integrity when they're diffuse and depersonalized; public bureaucracies can when they're insulated and arrogant. But that happens only if their leaders so choose. And only if we let them.

Seattle writer Matt Rosenberg is a regular contributor to editorial pages of The Times. E-mail him at oudist@nwlink.com.

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