by Michael Alvarez Shepard
Since January 2017, state Sen. Doug Ericksen has been at the center of a controversy around his decision to accept full-time work in Washington, D.C. during the limited Washington State legislative session. Sen. Ericksen continues to resist thousands of requests to resign and continues to be absent from important state business.
In the past two months, concerned constituents have successfully publicized Ericksen’s ongoing lack of full time presence in Olympia. The simple message of “Do your job” has resonated with bi-partisan constituents throughout the 42nd Legislative District. For many, the irony of a self-proclaimed small government conservative collecting two full-time government salaries from the taxpayers is just unacceptable.
The Ericksen accountability campaign has effectively attracted extensive local and national media attention to this issue that has engaged thousands of his concerned constituents, who called for the recent Town Hall meeting. Constituents plan to continue their efforts through voter education, new voter registration and continued media presence. In addition, voters are pushing for in-depth explanations of Ericksen’s controversial state per diem use and verifiable evidence that his District of Columbia position is temporary.
Ericksen Recall Petition
The recent recall petition was the highest profile aspect of the Ericksen accountability campaign to date. The recall petition did not pass judicial review. On March 2, 2017, Whatcom Superior Court Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis found “insufficient evidence” to approve commencing the signature gathering stage. Judge Montoya-Lewis’s decision is significant for two main reasons: little legal description of requirements of a legislator’s duties, and legal procedures.
“The performance of Sen. Ericksen in his duties as senator has to mean something. But there’s no standard that’s laid out in the statutes,” Judge Montoya-Lewis said. “There’s no description. There’s no case law that indicates what ‘discharge of his duties under his oath of office’ means.”
The law’s vagueness left little ground for petitioners to argue that Ericksen was doing less than he is obligated to do, because by law there is almost nothing he is required to do. The petitioners provided evidence of his extensive absences from his senate chair and argued that his actions demonstrate a violation of the expectations of his office. But to no avail, given the lack of codified standards.
Ultimately, Sen. Ericksen must justify his actions to his constituents, not the court. And national media have stepped up. The Washington Post reported that his absences in Olympia delayed critical votes on the senate floor and resulted in 30 canceled or missed committee meetings between Jan. 11 and Feb. 20, 2017. By missing 75 percent of his scheduled committee meetings and 11 floor votes, Ericksen not only is failing to do the job he was hired and paid to do, but he has also made himself inaccessible to his constituents.
The recall effort is just one piece in a broad citizen effort to increase his accountability. Other parts of the campaign include the @wheresdoug42 Twitter handle with its 400-plus followers and the more than 500 people who sent emails requesting a Town Hall meeting. There have been numerous letters to the editor in regional papers, along with media coverage from the Lynden Tribune to The Washington Post. In January 2017, an online petition began collecting signatures to compel Ericksen to resign or refund the taxpayers of Washington State. More than 1,850 voters have signed this petition, and about 600 have left personal comments.
Those petition comments reflect the broad, non-partisan frustration of 42nd district constituents. Ericksen continually states, without evidence, that he has broad support in the district for his dual appointment. The following statements provide evidence to the contrary.
For example, Susan in Custer wrote, “I’m a very unhappy republican voter and very concerned about the future of our nation and the world. This is not the kind of representation I signed on for.” Polly from Lynden wrote, “Sen. Ericksen was elected to do a job he is now doing half-time. The Washington State Legislature meets only for a few months. Don’t take time off! You are needed in Olympia, Senator!”
And Rod from Ferndale stated, “I’m very concerned about Senator Erickson’s inability to fully fulfill his obligations as Senator and carry out his new Environmental Protection Agency duties. It is unfair to both constituencies.” These citizen comments are just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to hundreds of other petition comments, voters filled to standing room only the recent Town Hall meeting and packed the recall petition hearing.
The second main reason the recall charges were dismissed are procedural. Between filing charges on Feb. 9 and the hearing on March 2, important new evidence about Sen. Ericksen became available.
On Feb. 2, 2017, Ericksen held a press conference in Olympia, when he was asked if he would claim the state per diem of $120 for days when he was in the District of Columbia. Ericksen clearly stated “I will not take that” per diem when in the District of Columbia. However, a records request to the Washington State Secretary of State’s office found that Ericksen claimed per diem for 16 days between Jan. 9 and Feb. 9, a period for which he was back and forth to the District of Columbia. For least three of those days, Ericksen was not in the state.
Chapter 10 of the State Administrative and Accounting Manual outlines state per diem rules, which are explicitly only for use when traveling for state purposes. Those trips and the time he spends in the District of Columbia are part of his work as Trump’s EPA transition team communication director. Unless Ericksen is on state business in the District of Columbia, he has no justification to claim state per diem. At the hearing, Ericksen’s attorney did acknowledge that some per diem funds had “accidentally” been taken. Ericksen, alerted to the oversight, claimed that funds for one day were repaid.
Recall petitioners felt that the new per diem evidence clearly demonstrated misfeasance and/or malfeasance, two of the required criteria for a recall. At the hearing, Ericksen’s attorney objected to the inclusion of this evidence and the amendment of the original recall charges. The judge agreed and disregarded the new per diem evidence in her decision. There is ongoing potential for additional Legislative Ethics Board complaints, state attorney general investigations or other recall efforts.
Crisis of Trust
Since Ericksen took the position in the District of Columbia, he has been repeatedly asked for the details of his appointment, including his salary, job description and schedule — all without satisfactory answers. Ericksen has continually stated that he does not know his District of Columbia salary and that he is “definitely losing money off this deal.”
As recently as the March 4, 2017, Town Hall meeting, Ericksen repeated this claim. However, just four days later, a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request revealed his District of Columbia salary is $161,900 per annum. That plus his state salary of $45,000 and per diem of $120 daily. The FOIA request produced a paystub for two weeks of Ericksen’s work in the District of Columbia, for a pay period ending Feb. 18, 2017.
By comparison, the average annual income in Whatcom County is $41,000, or one-fifth of Ericksen’s current, combined yearly pay. The FOIA paystub showed he is collecting benefits in a manner usually only reserved for permanent employees. While Ericksen states his position is temporary, no evidence has ever been provided to constituents that supports that claim. If Ericksen’s District of Columbia appointment turns out to be permanent, then Article 2, Section 14 of the Washington State Constitution would come into play, forcing Ericksen to choose.
From the hundreds of statements in the online petition, Anya of Bellingham’s posting has stuck out.
“Ericksen’s wife taught me in high school about the value of political involvement and challenging what’s wrong. I am appalled by Ericksen’s self-interest and lack of responsibility in serving his district,” she wrote.
Doug Ericksen has long actively and engagingly represented the 42nd District. There is no fault in receiving career and salary promotions like those he has accepted. In a hard-working community like Whatcom County, people expect efficient use of scarce tax dollars and effective representation. That is not possible from someone doing part-time work for full-time pay.
Michael Alvarez Shepard, Ph.D., has lived in Bellingham since 1997. He has a B.A. and M.A. from Western Washington University and a Ph.D. in Anthropology from The University of British Columbia. Shepard is a Research Associate at Western’s Center for Pacific Northwest Studies. Additionally, Shepard teaches online graduate courses in Cultural Sustainability and Environmental Studies for Goucher College.