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Originally published November 16, 2012 at 9:01 PM | Page modified November 17, 2012 at 8:09 AM

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Honorary consuls here: No caviar, but 520 bridge is toll-free

The Florida socialite mixed up in the Petraeus case is proving an embarrassment to this state's several dozen unpaid honorary consuls, who assist travelers and represent foreign nations at social and civic events.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Reading about Jill Kelley of the Gen. David Petraeus affair, you might think you also want to become one of those honorary consuls and be able to call the cops asking for diplomatic protection.

Well, let's ask some honorary consuls living right here in the Seattle area about the perks.

We have honorary consuls representing nations ranging from Uzbekistan and Uganda to France and the island country of Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.

According to the state's Department of Licensing (DOL), there are 45 vehicles in this state — most of them in King County — with license plates labeled "Honorary Consular Official." Such special plates also are common practice in other states.

But hold those dreams.

The picture these consuls paint is considerably more mundane than the life of Kelley, the Tampa, Fla., socialite who liked to host parties for military brass that included valet parking, string quartets on the lawn and caviar-laden buffets.

"Didn't she only get accreditation three months ago?" says John Gokcen of Kirkland, honorary consul general for Turkey and the current president of the Consular Association of Washington.

"Then she thought she was queen of the world. When we see this kind of thing, it's a disgrace to the consular corps. We feel embarrassed."

Duties and perks

Consuls are unpaid but do have some official duties: helping stranded nationals, contacting families if someone is hospitalized, offering information about obtaining visas.

But Gokcen, a structural-engineering instructor at Boeing, has to think hard about perks for our local honorary consuls.

OK, here is a perk: The special license plates mean no tolls when crossing the 520 bridge.

Because the bridge was partially built with federal funds, the feds wanted toll exemptions for foreign-government vehicles and international organizations.

But the special plates don't exempt them from tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge or Highway 167 "hot lanes."

Anything else?

Four hours' free parking at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — "if you're on consular duties, like picking up a VIP."

Another perk is being invited to hear the governor give the State of the State address, which some might argue perhaps isn't a perk, and also an invite to watch a newly elected governor being inaugurated.

As for a common perception of honorary consuls not having to pay parking tickets: not true, says Gokcen.

He says he tells his family, "Be careful. Watch how you behave. I don't want somebody saying the Turkish consul was violating the speed limit."

Clout with cops?

Being able to call the cops and ask for diplomatic protection from pesky media types hanging around, as Kelley did, is not something Jack Cowan, the French honorary consul here, says he would do.

In any case, says Seattle police spokesman Jeff Kappel, the way the cops respond wouldn't be about somebody claiming diplomatic protection, but "based on the crime being committed and activity being described."

Cowan says the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security does speak to the honorary consuls about basic tips when, say, they're picking up an ambassador at the airport.

But as for paparazzi? "No, no," Cowan says about calling on diplomatic protection from them.

As honorary consul and as head of the Pacific Northwest French-American Chamber of Commerce, Cowan does get his share of party invitations, and he also plays host.

On Friday night, he hosted 400 people at the Beaujolais Nouveau Wine Festival at the Columbia Tower Club.

"I average attending eight to 10 events a month," he says.

Name the cultural events — film festival, art show, concert — and you have to invite a representative of France, says Cowan.

But he doesn't always go.

"Sometimes I just like to go home and have macaroni and cheese," says Cowan.

How to become one

Becoming an honorary consul is a fairly straightforward process.

Step 1: Get a government to decide to name you as one.

Cowan, for example, does plenty to promote business between the two countries.

Bob Goff, an attorney in construction law from Gig Harbor, is the honorary consul here for Uganda.

Eight years ago, he founded Restore International, with a mission to rescue minor girls forced into brothels and slave-labor camps in India and Uganda, the latter asking Goff if he wanted the title of honorary consul.

He's never applied for the special license plates, and says when it comes to any possible glamour attached to his position, "I'd be about the last guy you'd invite to a party."

Ruth Elizabeth Willis, of Lakewood, is the honorary consul for Seychelles.

Through her work at the World Trade Center Tacoma, in 2006 she went with a friend to that island country, and kept returning.

"It's one of the most fabulous places in the world," she says.

Gary Furlong, a Seattle attorney, is the honorary consul in six Western states for Uzbekistan. For some nine years, he was president of the Seattle-Tashkent Sister City Association.

If a delegation from Uzbekistan comes to town for delivery of a couple of Boeing planes, Furlong takes them around.

Step 2: The nominating country's mission fills out Form DS-2005 and sends it to the State Department.

Furlong's paperwork was submitted for approval in 2002.

"I think from start to finish, it was about three to four months. But it's not unusual to run six months to a year," he says.

The State Department did not return a request asking how many honorary consul titles it has issued.

Then there's the jails

After that, for $27.75, the state DOL will send you one of those Honorary Consular Official plates.

Cowan has them on his 2008 Honda Element.

He says sometimes people ask him about the plates, mostly, "What's a consul?"

He'll gladly explain. Here is one of his jobs.

"I've been in every jail in King County," says Cowan.

A French national gets arrested, he has a right to contact his local government representative, and that's Cowan. Car accidents. Drugs. Some kind of dispute that got physical.

Cowan says he doesn't bail them out but he contacts their families, and provides them with names of attorneys.

His other duties include everything from delivering passports to certifying signatures of French retirees living here.

Sometimes, he says, people look a little surprised when meeting the local French honorary consul.

"I was born in Florida," he says. "They're thinking of some suave French guy. They meet a 60-year-old American guy."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

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