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Originally published Tuesday, August 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Councilman McIver paid ethics fine with taxpayer money

City Councilman Richard McIver paid a $1,000 ethics fine with taxpayer money, and the city's top ethics watchdog says he is sending the money back because it undermines the punitive and deterrent purpose of the fines.

Seattle Times staff reporter

City Councilman Richard McIver paid a $1,000 ethics fine with taxpayer money, and the city's top ethics watchdog says he is sending the money back because it undermines the punitive and deterrent purpose of the fines.

McIver paid the fine with city money under a little-known law that says the city will indemnify employees facing financial penalties for misconduct.

Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, said in a letter to McIver today that the councilman's decision to use public money is "plainly contrary to the public interest" and makes the commission's authority "meaningless."

The commission's ruling last month states that McIver "should pay from his personal funds" for the ethics violations. Barnett said the commission will explore ways to enforce its order in King County Superior Court.

Barnett said he did not know the law even existed until McIver's lawyer, a city attorney, brought it to his attention. Barnett does not know how many city employees might have paid past fines with taxpayer money.

The law says the city will not indemnify an employee engaged in dishonest, fraudulent, criminal or malicious acts.

The commission found last month that McIver violated the city's ethics code when he awarded a no-bid contract to a company after vacationing at the Virgin Islands condominium of one of the company's owners.

The commission's ruling said McIver did not intend to violate the code and he did not receive any private benefit for awarding the contract.

McIver was fined a total of $1,000 for two violations: one for signing the $37,000 contract and another for expanding it to $42,000. The commission could have fined him up to $10,000.

McIver has denied any wrongdoing. McIver, 67, is home today recovering from recent surgery and subsequent complications, said his aide Paul Elliott.

In a two-paragraph written statement today McIver said it is unfortunate that Barnett and the commission are "threatening to waste even more taxpayer dollars in their attempt to establish a totally undefined and subjective standard for city contracting."

McIver said he decided not to appeal the commission fine to put this "unfortunate episode" behind him. He noted that city law allows him to pay the fine with public money because he awarded the contract as part of his city duties. "It is regrettable that I am now caught in the middle of a disagreement over the interpretation of law," he concluded.

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Elliott said McIver would have no further comment today.

McIver awarded the $37,000 no-bid contract early last year to Griffin, Hill & Associates (GHA), a firm that his longtime friend Joann Francis had joined months earlier, according to ethics charges brought by Barnett.

The contract called for GHA to evaluate the performance of the city auditor's office.

McIver said from the outset he wanted to hire a minority- or woman-owned small business, and Griffin, Hill was the only prequalified firm with the skills for that contract. Francis joined Griffin, Hill in 2006, eventually becoming a 10 percent owner.

McIver vacationed at Francis' condominium in the Virgin Islands three times. McIver's wife also joined them on at least one trip. Francis and her husband have vacationed at the McIvers' property in Mexico twice, according to testimony in the ethics case.

Barnett said that while GHA was qualified to do that work, McIver should have refrained from participating in the contract award. Seattle's ethics law forbids public officials from taking any action that creates even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

McIver had called the charges "frivolous" and "without merit." He said he followed the council's contracting rules and the contract was approved by then-Council President Nick Licata.

This is the latest in a string of problems for McIver in recent years.

A council member since 1997, he was charged with assault last year after police said that, during a profane tirade, he grabbed his wife by the throat. The charges were dropped after she declined to cooperate with authorities. Francis, who is an attorney, initially represented McIver in that case.

In 2004, McIver agreed to pay a $200 fine to the ethics commission for accepting a lunch paid for by former Gov. Al Rosellini, who was lobbying on behalf of a zoning change sought by a Lake City strip club.

McIver checked out of the hospital two weeks ago after he underwent surgery on July 21 to remove part of his colon after "precancerous cells" were discovered.

Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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