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Facing Ethics Charge, Washington Lt. Gov. Wants Legal Defense Fund

State of Washington
Washington Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen

In the 1990s an embattled President Clinton created a legal defense fund. Now, four-term Washington Lt. Gov. Brad Owen wants all state elected officials to have that option.

The Democrat is motivated by his own ethics troubles.

This past summer, Washington’s Ethics Board found there was reasonable cause to believe Owen used public resources to a support a non-profit he founded with his wife. It was a musical program that traveled to schools with anti-drugs and bullying message.

Owen believes the original ethics complaint was politically motivated and maintains he did nothing wrong.

“It’s challenging whether or not my work with kids was a legitimate function of my office.”

Owen now faces a formal ethics hearing this fall. He’s hired a lawyer to defend him against the Attorney General’s office.

Owen says when all is said and done this could personally cost him $20,000 to $30,000 in legal fees.

“So you’re faced with having to go through this process with no means of raising the money to defend yourself that even a murderer would have the right to do.”

Owen wants to be able to solicit his friends and political supporters to help defray his legal costs. But Washington elected officials can’t accept gifts in excess of $50 in value.

So this year, Owen worked behind-the-scenes to push legislation that would allow state officers to create an Ethics Defense Trust Fund. Instead of $50, contributors could give significantly more -- the maximum allowed for campaign contributions.

Owen says it’s a matter of leveling the playing field.

“It’s really unconscionable when you think about it that you would say to somebody, we’re going to limit your ability to raise the money to defend yourself when we know that this could cost thousands of dollars guilty or not.”

Owen says Senate Majority leadership assured him the Ethics Defense Fund measure would get a vote this year. But instead it died.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler confirms there were concerns about how this would play with the voting public.

“My wife says it looks bad," he says. "She’s a pretty good test of things.”

For his part, Lieutenant Governor Owen says this isn’t just about him. He believes all elected officials are vulnerable to politically motivated ethics complaints that could end up costing them lots of money to defend.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."