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Originally published Monday, May 21, 2012 at 9:58 AM

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McKenna's county files raise campaign-ethics concerns

Hundreds of documents stored at the King County Archives suggest Rob McKenna's office may have improperly mixed campaign and political documents while he served as a Metropolitan King County Council member.

The Associated Press

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Using a fax machine and letterhead from the Metropolitan King County Council in April 2002, the office of then-Councilmember Rob McKenna sent off an invitation to the U.S. secretary of the interior.

McKenna, listed as the sender on both the fax cover page and underlying note, requested on behalf of the Washington State Republican Party that the Cabinet leader speak at the party's annual convention. It was a political memo that may have placed McKenna's office afoul of state or county ethics laws, which bar the use of government facilities for "personal convenience" and political campaigns.

An Associated Press review of thousands of pages of official McKenna documents stored at the King County Archives identified hundreds of records that have no place in government files: fundraising lists, candidate strategy ideas, a voided campaign check and a packet titled "Rob McKenna For Attorney General." And there are strong indications that McKenna himself was at least aware of how his District 6 office mixed campaign and government documents.

McKenna, now the attorney general and Republican favorite in this year's race for governor, said in an interview that many of the documents were likely left accidentally in the office by someone doing outside campaign work. Questioned about the fact that political issues were scheduled for discussion during staff meetings, McKenna said those in the office inevitably discussed politics but were careful not to use county resources for personal or campaign matters.

"Part of what you do in the county council business is politics, but that's not the same thing as running a campaign," he said.

A few days before the faxed invitation to the interior secretary, McKenna himself sent an officially headlined memo to his legislative-affairs director, Hunter Goodman, that discussed various council business. But it also included information on what McKenna deemed "External Business," in which the councilman said he was looking to pursue the Republican convention invitation.

In another memo, Goodman wrote to "District Six Staff" in January 2003 about items for discussion at a staff meeting. While the agenda included many council issues, such as a newsletter to constituents and an update on solid-waste matters, it also scheduled staff to discuss "grass roots fundraising and candidate meetings" as well as McKenna's re-election kickoff scheduled for March of that year.

That re-election event is prominent in his files. His folders include lists of attendees, a map of where supporters would sit and a minute-by-minute schedule of events.

Another memo for a staff meeting a year prior referenced work needed for a specific fundraiser. Another asks staff members what needs to be done to get a fundraiser going for McKenna. Another memo from Goodman tells District 6 staff that an "action item" is related to the 2004 campaign for governor: "what is our next step in finding our candidate?"

One of the District 6 staff meetings from 2002 had McKenna's initials next to an item labeled "PFA." Handwritten notes from that meeting indicate it was about Progress For America, a group designed to support the policies of President George W. Bush. Another folder in McKenna's archives is dedicated to Progress For America materials and notes about McKenna's efforts to raise money for the group.

State laws related to using government offices for political work may no longer be applicable to McKenna's files, since the statute of limitations for such laws is five years. However, he could be subject to an ethics complaint in King County, since those rules do not have explicit time constraints.

Bruce Laing, who was McKenna's Republican predecessor on the council and now chairs the King County Board of Ethics, declined to comment on the specific files found in McKenna's archives. But he noted both the county's ethics code and advisory opinions that explain what types of activities are improper.

"It's pretty specific. It's pretty clear," Laing said.

One of those ethics opinions, published in 1996 not long after McKenna took office there, gives broad guidance to county workers about how to use various county facilities. When it comes to fax machines, for example, the ethics board said plainly that they "may be used only to conduct official county business."

"Facsimile equipment, telephone line, and paper are provided for transmitting and receiving correspondence to conduct official business, and may not be used for private or personal business," the advisory opinion said. Similar rules apply for other county facilities, though the opinions approve the use of county facilities for emergencies or if the use is brief, infrequent, cost-free and unobtrusive.

For personal use, the county ethics code says that no employee "shall request or permit the use of county-owned vehicles, equipment, materials or property or the expenditure of county funds for personal convenience or profit."

For campaign issues, the county ethics code largely mirrors state law and says that workers "shall not use or authorize the use of the facilities of King County" for personal or ballot elections.

Goodman said the campaign-related files in the archives were his and that they must have been accidentally brought in from the outside and co-mingled with the county records. He said it was an error but not an indication that campaign work occurred there.

The staff meetings that referenced campaign events took place off site and after business hours, Goodman said. He now works for McKenna at the Attorney General's Office and said staffers have always taken care not to misuse government facilities, recalling how they would leave county offices before discussing campaign issues.

"We don't even take calls from our campaigns ever during business hours," said Goodman, who would only speak to a reporter on the topic outside of his current work hours. "We are very, very diligent about that. It's something Rob would never permit, and it's something we're very cognizant of."

Laing, the ethics chairman, said he has found that county politicians work very hard to avoid any conflict while in office. He said they worked hard to schedule times outside of work to deal with campaign issues and crafted newsletters to constituents to make sure they did not include any campaignlike statements.

"Using county time or county resources for purposes of campaigning was just not acceptable," Laing said.

McKenna was first elected to the Metropolitan King County Council in 1995. He then won a campaign for his current position as attorney general in 2004.

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