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Originally published February 4, 2010 at 8:09 PM | Page modified February 5, 2010 at 10:47 AM

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McGinn adviser resigns, admits he lied about Ph.D.

Chris Bushnell, a senior adviser to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, resigned Thursday, just two weeks into the job, after admitting he has lied in the past about having a doctoral degree.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A senior adviser to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn resigned Thursday afternoon, just two weeks into the job, after admitting he has lied in the past about having a doctoral degree.

Chris Bushnell, 36, was just getting started in his $110,000-a-year job, working on policies regarding transportation, human services, public health and older adults.

But over the past few weeks, some of McGinn's critics targeted Bushnell, tipping reporters to questions about his educational and criminal background. They also called for his firing and blamed him for McGinn's decision to eliminate 200 of the city's top positions. The political Web site, PubliCola, has blogged about Bushnell repeatedly and first reported his claims about the doctorate.

"I don't think I could be effective in this job, given the issues that have been raised," he said, just after meeting with the mayor Thursday.

In an interview with The Seattle Times, Bushnell said he had exaggerated his credentials in PowerPoint presentations in 2007 and 2008 and on a business card in a previous job. Those documents identified him as having a doctoral degree.

He also was convicted in 1994 of felony bank fraud, and McGinn says he knew about Bushnell's criminal record before hiring him.

McGinn spokesman Mark Matassa said the mayor tried to discourage Bushnell from leaving and "very reluctantly accepted his resignation."

Bushnell, who also played a key role in McGinn's campaign, said he felt the attention being drawn to him was "detracting from the administration."

His role before McGinn took office — as a volunteer on the mayor-elect's transition staff — made him a visible insider. During the transition, he sat in on dozens of interviews with people who had been working for Mayor Greg Nickels and were uncertain of whether McGinn would retain them.

He personally told many of them that McGinn had decided to fire them, according to Bushnell and McGinn.

When asked earlier this week about his educational background, Bushnell said that although he was enrolled in graduate school at the University of Washington, he had not completed the degree. He earned a bachelor of arts in economics from the UW, but not until December 2004, more than two years after he began working as an economist at King County. The university would not release his records this week, but Bushnell faxed a certification of enrollment to The Seattle Times.

In 2007, Bushnell identified himself as having a doctorate in a presentation he prepared as King County's chief economist. In 2008, after leaving the county job, he sent a presentation to then-County Executive Ron Sims about the county's budget crisis. That report, too, identified him as having a doctorate.

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"I'm very aware that what I did was wrong, and inappropriate, and I don't really have a defense for it," Bushnell said. "I was claiming that I had a credential that I didn't have."

As a teenager, Bushnell said, he and a friend embarked on a two-year scheme to steal money by hacking into Seafirst Bank computers and changing account information so they could cash fake cashier's checks. They also cashed fake checks from other banks, Bushnell said.

At 20, he pleaded guilty to felony bank fraud and counterfeiting, according to U.S. District Court records and was sentenced to four months in jail. He paid back $64,000 and was ordered to serve 250 hours of community service, court records show.

"There's probably nothing I regret more," he said this week. "I haven't really forgiven myself for it. It was a really stupid thing."

After his conviction, Bushnell went to school and was on staff at the UW.

McGinn said Wednesday that he has known for years about Bushnell's criminal record. Bushnell told him when McGinn asked for his help on the 2008 parks-levy campaign.

"I guess I believe people can make mistakes, own the mistakes, and still be able to contribute," McGinn said. "I guess I believe that people can still redeem themselves."

Bushnell is regarded by his former employers and others who know him as something of a numbers genius. McGinn said he wanted Bushnell to come work for him because "he's a very smart guy. He's a very thoughtful guy."

McGinn said the two men share an approach to issues, in that they like the challenge conventional wisdom and aren't afraid to "wade into" discussions about change.

During his campaign, McGinn relied on Bushnell to interpret polling data. Bushnell helped start a polling firm with Mercury Group partner Bill Broadhead and worked for public-affairs consulting firm Gogerty Marriott.

Staff reporter Keith Ervin and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report. Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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