Commission: “Insufficient evidence” of ethics violations in snow

(WSB photo from Upper Fauntleroy, December 2008)
The city Ethics (and Elections) Commission issued a short letter to Mayor Nickels late today, saying that in his response for an investigation into whether any aspect of the snowstorm response constituted an ethics violation, “… there is insufficient evidence to charge anyone with a violation of the Ethics Code.” Accompanying that letter, their report on who they talked to and what they found out. See the report here; see the letter here. We’re checking the report now for any West Seattle specifics – you’ll recall, one of the allegations was that extra snow-clearing was done in north West Seattle, where the mayor, deputy mayor Tim Ceis and SDOT director Grace Crunican live. ADDED: Page 3 of the report is where the findings in those allegations begin – read on for our cut-and-paste if that’s easier:

2. The SEEC found insufficient evidence to file charges based on
allegations that Paul Jackson ordered that the Mayor, the Deputy
Mayor and the SDOT Director receive preferential treatment from
SDOT plows.

If a City officer or employee accorded preferential treatment to themselves or others
during the December 2008 storm response, that conduct would constitute a misuse of City
resources in violation of the Ethics Code, barring any public purpose underlying the preferential
treatment. (For example, directing a plow to clear a path to a house so that it could be reached
by an ambulance clearly would not violate the Ethics Code.)

There are conflicting accounts of whether Mayor Nickels or any other high-ranking City
officials received special treatment from SDOT. The Mayor told SEEC staff that he saw no
plows on his residential street during the storm, nor did he see any evidence that his street had
been plowed or de-iced. The Deputy Mayor and the SDOT Director shared similar accounts.
Each stated unequivocally that their residential streets were not plowed.

One driver that SEEC staff spoke to, however, recounted that Paul Jackson pointed out
the locations of the Mayor’s house, the Deputy Mayor’s house and the SDOT Director’s house
on a West Seattle map, and instructed him to see that their streets were cleared. According to
this driver, Jackson said that plowing these streets was in “our best interests,” and would “make us all look better.” Another driver said that he did not see Jackson pointing out houses on a map,
but did participate in plowing the residential streets around the SDOT Director’s house.

SEEC staff’s review of the crew reports yielded no documentary evidence that would
corroborate the testimony that the streets of high-ranking City officials received special
treatment. While there is evidence of plowing of residential streets in West Seattle, the streets
that were plowed do not correlate with the residential addresses of the Mayor or other high-
ranking City officials.

Paul Jackson denies ever ordering the Mayor’s, Deputy Mayor’s or SDOT Director’s
streets be plowed. He denies even knowing what streets the Mayor and Deputy Mayor live on,
let alone pointing to their locations on a map and directing that their streets, or the SDOT
Director’s street, be plowed. According to Mr. Jackson, he never directed or authorized drivers
to plow any routes not designated as primary or secondary routes on the City’s Winter Storm
Response Plan. Deputy Director Fiske-Zuniga and Director Crunican both told staff that Mr.
Jackson was, if anything, too wedded to the City’s Winter Storm Response Plan, resulting in the
need to direct him, for example, to clear downtown streets that were not designated as primary or
secondary routes on the Winter Storm Response Plan.

SEEC staff is left then, with competing oral testimony and no documents, photographs, or
recordings to corroborate either version of events. In this case, the Director declines to file
charges against Mr. Jackson for directing that City resources be deployed to provide special
treatment to the Mayor and other high-ranking City officials. Two factors in this decision bear

First, with two daily newspapers, two weeklies, as well as television stations, radio
stations, blogs and other online news sources covering the City’s response to the December 2008
snow storms, it is reasonable to expect that some news outlet would have posted a
contemporaneous account if high-ranking officials were receiving preferential treatment during a
storm that left thousands stranded. In fact, the Mayor directed SEEC staff’s attention to a
December 26, 2008 news segment on King 5 television, in which reporter Jesse Jones speaks to a
delivery truck driver who delivers on the Mayor’s street and complains about the poor road
conditions. It is not entirely clear that the video is taken on the Mayor’s street, but it is clear that
Jesse Jones was in the Mayor’s neighborhood on December 26, speaking with someone who
drove on the Mayor’s street, and he did not report that the Mayor’s street had received any
special attention. Though this fact alone does not establish that the Mayor’s street received no
special attention over the two week course of the storm, the fact that no documentary evidence
showing preferential treatment has surfaced weighs heavily on the Director’s decision not to file
charges. If such evidence does emerge, the Director can always reopen an investigation.

Second, tensions in SDOT’s Street Maintenance Division cannot be discounted, since
they would certainly be a factor in Commissioners’ assessment of witnesses the Director would
call in any adjudicatory hearing. There are several news accounts documenting the polarized
work environment that existed in SDOT’s Street Maintenance Division before Mr. Jackson was reassigned last month. The Director has read news reports, and confirmed with someone who
was present, that Street Maintenance Division staff broke into cheers and applause when they
were told that Mr. Jackson was leaving the division. The Director does not believe he could
establish a violation based solely on the testimony of individuals who were invested in Mr.
Jackson’s removal from his position.

4 Replies to "Commission: "Insufficient evidence" of ethics violations in snow"

  • MrJT June 18, 2009 (6:16 pm)

    Surprise !

  • Michael June 18, 2009 (7:14 pm)

    Talk about an idiotic waste of money.
    Why can’t we take all the funds that would be used in all these investigations, the result of which is the obvious – we have many hills and no one uses chains or snow tires, so it’s hard to get around when it snows – and put it towards a few more plows?
    That would be much more efficient, but it wouldn’t enable people to sit and snipe.

  • HS June 18, 2009 (9:47 pm)

    My thoughts exactly, Michael! Couldn’t have said it better myself…

  • Jo June 19, 2009 (2:51 pm)

    The mayor lives in North Admiral on top of the hill.
    I don’t know where Cruncian lives in WS, but…
    Tim Ceis, deputy mayor, lives on Alki, three blocks from me, and no way, did Ceis’ street receive ANY plowing early on. It was many days before a plow appeared down here on the Alki plateau.

Sorry, comment time is over.