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Originally published Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 7:14 PM

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Filings reveal McKenna's taste for free travel

Rob McKenna has accepted $184,000 worth of free travel and events since becoming attorney general in January 2005, according to financial reports filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Six days after he was first sworn in as Washington's attorney general, Rob McKenna took advantage of one of the perks of his new elected office: free travel.

His first stop was Washington, D.C., where he attended a conference paid for by the State Government Leadership Foundation, a Republican group that promotes a conservative legislative agenda and bankrolls campaign ads for GOP candidates.

The three-day trip cost $1,108, and was followed in quick succession by a $17,000 trip to Japan paid for by Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, two more conferences hosted by the conservative foundation, and a $2,400 trip to Maui, courtesy of a regional attorneys-general group.

Those trips were part of the $184,000 worth of free travel and events McKenna has accepted since becoming attorney general in January 2005, according to financial reports filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).

The free trips and events are allowed under state law as long as they're disclosed to the public, and McKenna said in an interview that his extracurricular activities have helped him develop relationships that benefit Washingtonians.

But an ethics expert said the extent of McKenna's free travel and events raises questions about the time he spends away from the office, particularly on trips paid for by political entities, and about the actual benefits the travel and events provide to the state.

"When you take an oath of office, you vow to put the public interest first," said Judy Nadler, former mayor of Santa Clara, Calif., and a senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

McKenna, who is running as the Republican candidate for governor, accepted nearly three times as many privately paid trips and event tickets over the past seven years as his predecessor, Gov. Chris Gregoire, did during her last eight years as attorney general, according to the financial reports.

The number of free trips McKenna accepted also is more than four times the number reported over a similar period by his gubernatorial opponent, Democrat Jay Inslee.

Records show that McKenna spent 56 days — eight weeks — in travel paid for by others in 2011. The travel included conferences and speaking engagements in-state and out of state, and goodwill and educational trips overseas.

Some of the travel, particularly in-state trips, may not have been a full day.

In 2010, he spent 49 days traveling on other people's dime.

Inslee's trips

Inslee took three privately financed trips overseas, and 14 trips to speaking engagements, conferences and fact-finding missions in the United States from June 2001 to June 2011, when he was a congressman representing Washington's 1st Congressional District, according to the most recent reports available.

Inslee traveled to Germany in 2008 courtesy of the International Management and Development Institute, a nonprofit educational group funded in part by corporations that cannot directly pay for Congress members' travel.

He also traveled to France and Belgium in 2004 on an eight-day fact-finding trip paid for by the Transatlantic Policy Network, a nonprofit group that seeks to strengthen ties between the United States and the European Union, and to Nicaragua in 2005 on a five-day trip sponsored by Global Partnerships, a not-for-profit Seattle-based organization that invests in microfinance groups and co-ops to expand opportunities for people living in poverty.

Free trips worldwide

McKenna has taken two free trips to Israel, two to Taiwan, and one each to France, the Middle East, Japan, and China and India since he was sworn in January 2005.

Both trips to Taiwan and one of the Israel trips were connected with delegations sponsored by the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), a professional group. He was elected vice president of the organization in 2009, and its president in 2011. In addition to the foreign travel, he has taken about two trips a year to attend association meetings.

Jim McPherson, NAAG's executive director, said the foreign governments are "looking to build a personal relationship with people who might become leaders of the country."

"There's value in face-to-face meetings with the presidents of Taiwan and Israel and his or her staff," McPherson said.

Elected officials who go on the trips come away with a deeper knowledge on issues involving trade, extradition and legal systems, he said.

McKenna also accepted a $10,000 trip to France in 2008, paid for by the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs. His wife, Marilyn, accompanied him on the trip, but his spokesman said the attorney general paid her way.

That same year, McKenna accepted a $13,000 trip to the Middle East, paid for by The Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan policy and education study group based in Washington, D.C. The group also sent McKenna on an $18,000 trip to China and India in 2007, according to records filed with the Public Disclosure Commission.

McKenna also traveled free to meetings and conferences paid for by the Republican Attorney General's Association, a partisan group affiliated with the conservative foundation that financed earlier trips. The foundation is not required to disclose the donors who fund it.

"Those are political trips, more akin to campaign trips than anything else," McKenna said.

Other trips were paid for by the Conference of Western Attorneys General, a bipartisan regional group of elected leaders.

New relationships

McKenna said he was invited on many of the foreign and domestic trips because he was elected to the attorney general's office when he was 42, and the groups considered him a young leader with a promising future.

He accepted the trips, he said, because they expanded his perspective and enabled him to develop relationships with other decision-makers in the U.S. and abroad. He accepted free tickets to events, he said, because it's important for the attorney general to "be out in the community."

"All the trips have been at no cost to state taxpayers," McKenna said. He also said the trips were taken on his own time.

"I do get vacation, and I get to use that vacation as I want," he said.

Elected executives in Washington don't get a fixed amount of vacation; they can take as little or as much as they want. Dan Sytman, spokesman for the attorney general's office, said it's assumed that elected executives are on the clock 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Not including the travel time, McKenna took 13 days of personal vacation in 2010 and 13 more in 2011, Sytman said.

Sytman said McKenna is "rarely out of contact while traveling, on weekends, etc." He said that when the attorney general is traveling, middle- and upper-level managers in his office run the day-to-day operations.

Sytman maintained that McKenna's travels provide direct benefits to the state.

"Taiwan, Japan and Israel are close allies and trading partners," Sytman said. "We work with them on a variety of legal and policy issues. It's appropriate for state officials, including the attorney general, to maintain positive relationships with officials from these and other countries."

McKenna also noted that officials from those countries visit the United States in learning exchanges.

Nadler, the former mayor who now conducts ethics seminars for elected officials, said officials should carefully consider unofficial travel and events where others are picking up the tab, particularly if it's associated with partisan groups or activities.

"Political trips or trips paid for by a political party or to rub elbows to advance a political career are inappropriate," she said. "There's a fine line between being an officeholder and being a candidate. You are supposed to be doing the public's job."

More than Gregoire

During her tenure as attorney general, Gregoire also accepted free travel, but most of it was directly tied to her role in negotiating a $206 billion settlement between tobacco companies and attorneys general from 46 states.

McKenna said Washington state benefits from the relationships he developed during his trips, and said he was able to use those relationships to help resolve differences between attorneys general involved in negotiating a multistate settlement related to abusive mortgage practices.

McKenna also reported attending far more free events than Gregoire did during her last eight years in office, before she became governor in 2005.

Over that time, Gregoire accepted free tickets to one dinner event and one luncheon, and accepted lodging for three other events where breakfast was served, according to financial reports she filed with the state.

McKenna has attended dozens of such events — including University of Washington football and basketball games — over the seven years for which reports are available. For events such as charity galas, McKenna reported what it would cost to purchase a ticket, which sometimes ran into the hundreds of dollars.

He said he fields many invitations because groups like to have elected officials attend their events. He said that he couldn't possibly pay to attend every charitable event, but that he always makes a contribution when he does attend.

Staff researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Susan Kelleher: (206) 464-2508 or skelleher@seattletimes.com or on Twitter @susankelleher

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