In Washington, the revolving door between government service and lobbying is well-greased

Sep 2, 2020

On the evening of Monday, March 23, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee delivered a televised address from his office at the Capitol to announce his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order. That order effectively shut down as many as 230-thousand Washington businesses deemed nonessential.

Two days prior, a lobbyist with deep, personal ties to Inslee had contacted one of the governor’s senior policy advisors on behalf of the commercial fishing industry.

“I’m working with [t]he At-Sea processors which is the biggest fishery in the country and the second biggest in the world,” wrote Brian Bonlender in a March 21 email to Charles Knutson, who advises Inslee on economic development, innovation and global affairs.

Bonlender, whose connection to Inslee dated to the early 1990s, wanted to know if the governor was going to designate critical infrastructure -- exempt from any shutdown order -- and, if so, whether commercial fishing would be included.

On the day of Inslee’s announcement, Bonlender followed up with another email -- this one to Inslee’s general counsel, Kathryn Leathers. Once again, he asked if commercial fishing would be deemed critical infrastructure under a shelter-at-home order. Bonlender also inquired about housing construction on behalf of another client, a large construction firm. 

He wrote: “Are you able to tell me if: 1) Commercial fishing would be determined to be critical infrastructure or critical activity under a home/shelter order? Federal guidance includes commercial fishing. 2) Would housing construction be designated as critical infrastructure/activity? I believe that California has included such activity.” 

Bonlender was no stranger to Inslee’s office. Just 14 months earlier, he’d stepped down as a member of Inslee’s executive cabinet. From 2013 until January of 2019 Bonlender headed the Washington Department of Commerce, an agency with a broad portfolio that ranges from homelessness assistance to international trade. Prior to that, he’d served as Inslee’s transition director, was a senior advisor to Inslee’s 2012 gubernatorial campaign and had risen to the position of chief of staff when Inslee served in Congress. In fact, Bonlender had spent the better part of a quarter of a century, since graduating from Washington State University, working for Inslee in one capacity or another.

Soon after leaving his job at the Department of Commerce, Bonlender started his own consulting and lobbying firm – Lodestar Strategic. Bonlender said lobbying constitutes about a quarter of his work.

“I left [state service] because I wanted to see my children grow up,” Bonlender wrote in an email. “After over 20 years of public service and the last six commuting daily from North Seattle to Olympia in a 24/7 job, it was just time.”

Bonlender’s move from high-ranking government official to registered lobbyist was not unusual. Of Washington’s roughly 800 lobbyists, nearly one-in-five previously worked in state government or served in elected office. That’s according to a first-of-its-kind analysis by the public radio Northwest News Network and The Seattle Times.

Within that group are at least 60 former state lawmakers, high-level officials and staffers, including: two former Democratic state senators, two former directors of the state Department of Ecology, one former Department of Revenue director and three former gubernatorial chiefs of staff.

Records show many of them registered as lobbyists within a few months of leaving public service and some within days. Unlike most states, Washington doesn’t restrict this so-called revolving door between public service and lobbying. But it’s not for lack of trying.

This graphic, courtesy of The Seattle Times, shows examples of Washington's so-called revolving door between public service and lobbying.
Credit Emily M. Eng / The Seattle Times

“I am passionate about eliminating what I call the ‘Friday to Monday problem,’” said Democratic state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, referring to the idea that someone can leave state service on a Friday and show back up on Monday as a lobbyist.

Since 2015, Carlyle has sponsored legislation to require a cooling off period before former high level staff and elected officials can become lobbyists. He said the issue first hit his radar in 2013 when he was in the Washington House and became chair of the Finance Committee. In that role, Carlyle said, former state officials lobbied him on behalf of business interests seeking preferential tax rates and exemptions. 

“So that revolving door became very real to me and I just thought it was important to take a stand on the issue,”Carlyle said.

The majority of states, including Oregon, and the federal government impose some type of waiting period between public service and lobbying, according to analyses by the National Conference of State Legislatures and and the watchdog group Public Citizen. But not Washington state.

Government reform advocates argue that without restrictions, the potential exists for public officials to be influenced with the promise of a lucrative job. Even if there’s no quid pro quo, they say, the situation can create the perception that a state official is cashing in on their insider status. 

“We don’t believe it’s acceptable to use this information to be exploited for any special interest,” said Cindy Black of the nonprofit Fix Democracy First during legislative testimony in 2019. “Setting parameters and having some time off before you enter the private sector as a lobbyist is a commonsense reform to slow down a process that has become routine.”

As currently proposed, the cooling off period in Washington – one year in the Senate bill, two years in the House version -- would only apply to former elected officials and high level staff. 

But, year after year, efforts to pass this legislation have been unsuccessful.

“The slow winter fog of political death seems to find its way toward this bill every single year,” Carlyle said.

Over the years, there’s been no public opposition to the revolving door legislation. But House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, the number two Democrat in the state House, said there also hasn’t been a groundswell of support for the idea.

“I don’t know that around this issue we’ve heard from a lot of people on it,” Sullivan said.

Carlyle said the idea of slowing the revolving door makes people uncomfortable and that behind the scenes there’s wariness.

“A lot of folks feel like people who serve in public life, in public office or public service shouldn’t be penalized for future employment opportunities,” he said.

One skeptic of a cooling off period is Matt Steuerwalt who, in 2017, left his position as Inslee’s director of policy and three months later joined a lobbying firm operated by a former gubernatorial chief of staff. Previously, Steuerwalt had also worked for Gov. Christine Gregoire. 

“I am proud of my 14 years in public service and honored by the trust that two Governors put in my strategic judgment,” Steuerwalt wrote in an email earlier this year. “I am similarly honored by the trust that our clients put in our firm to advocate for their interests and proud to work for them.”

Steuerwalt, who lives in Seattle and has two young sons, said he left Inslee’s office because of family considerations.

The firm he joined, Insight Strategic Partners, was founded in 2016 by Marty Loesch, who served as chief of staff to Gregoire from 2011 to 2013. Despite its status as a relative newcomer, Insight Strategic Partners already boasts a long list of high profile clients including the NFL, Amazon, Zillow, Lyft and Puget Sound Energy. In August, the firm reported it had collected $112,950 in fees from 20 clients the previous month.

In his email, Steuerwalt pushed back on the idea that the revolving door is problematic. He wrote that the news organizations’ line of questioning suggested that “there is something inherently unreasonable” about people leaving state service to lobby and vice versa.

“Washington has existing ethics and transparency laws that appear to be working well, and it doesn’t seem to me that a long-standing prohibition like this at the federal level has given citizens any more faith in the integrity of their federal government,” Steuerwalt wrote.

Under current Washington ethics laws, former state employees are prohibited from working on a contract or regulatory matter for a private employer, if they previously worked in a personal and substantial way on that same issue for the state. But that lifetime ban, under the employment after public service law, is generally not a barrier for most state officials who become lobbyists.

Under the proposed revolving door legislation, the transition from public servant to lobbyist would still be allowed, but only after a waiting period.

Since 2017, Democratic state Rep. Mike Pellicciotti has sponsored the revolving door bill in the Washington House. Last year, Pellicciotti told a legislative committee that “jaws hit the ground” when he tells constituents that he could resign his seat and become a paid lobbyist with no waiting period.

“And when jaws are hitting the ground, it’s a pretty good indication that our laws are not comporting with public expectation,” Pellicciotti said in his 2019 testimony.

Washington’s revolving door received renewed scrutiny last year when then-state Sen. Guy Palumbo, a Democrat, resigned his seat to become a state lobbyist for Amazon.

Prior to stepping down, Palumbo had been the prime sponsor of a bill to require state agencies to adopt cloud computing solutions for any new information technology investments. 

In urging his colleagues to approve the bill, which passed the state Senate but died in the House, Palumbo touted Washington’s homegrown cloud computing companies.

“Namely Microsoft and Amazon who are the worldwide leaders in this space,” Palumbo said at the time.

Palumbo declined to comment for this story. In an email, an Amazon spokesperson noted that Palumbo was one of the company’s first 800 employees. “So bringing him back was a natural fit,” said the spokesperson.

But at the time, Palumbo’s abrupt role change from lawmaker to lobbyist provided fresh ammunition for advocates of a cooling off period.

“I think that’s the kind of thing that causes people to think, ‘Wait a second, wouldn’t it make sense to have that cooling off period of a year before you turn to that type of service,’” said Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who has championed the revolving door legislation since 2015.

Pellicciotti, who’s running for state treasurer this year, also took note of Palumbo’s resignation.

“It never looks good when elected officials cash in on their public service for their personal gain by becoming a paid lobbyist,” Pellicciotti said.

The optics of people leaving state service to immediately become lobbyists also troubles Republican state Rep. Morgan Irwin, a co-sponsor of Pellicciotti’s bill. Irwin, a police officer who’s not running for re-election, said it’s to be expected that lawmakers will take another job once they leave office.

“But we also need to be clear to our voters and constituents that we’re not coming [to Olympia] for the wrong reasons and that once we leave here we’re not bringing with us some sort of special privilege,” Irwin said.

This year, Carlyle, the Senate sponsor, said he agreed to a Republican compromise that would have scaled back the cooling off requirement so that it applied only to former statewide elected officials and state lawmakers, not staffers. But once again, the House and Senate bills didn’t come up for a vote before the Legislature adjourned in mid-March.

Former Washington Department of Commerce Director Brian Bonlender left his post in January 2019 and the following month registered as a lobbyist. Unlike most states, Washington doesn't impose a so-called cooling off period before people can become lobbyists after leaving state service.
Credit Washington Department of Commerce

It was later that month that Bonlender, the former Commerce director, contacted Inslee’s staff on behalf of his commercial fishing client.

“Like many industries, the commercial fishing industry was trying to understand how they [might] be impacted by any state’s coronavirus related orders,” Bonlender explained recently in an email to the public radio Northwest News Network and The Seattle Times.

Bondlender said it was his understanding the state of Alaska had already deemed commercial fishing essential as part of the broader food industry. There was concern, he said, that if Washington didn’t follow suit it would impact the Puget Sound-based fleet, which fishes in federal waters and makes shore calls in Alaska.

“Rendering them all inoperable could have [had] local, national, and global impacts for a part of the economy that is about as essential as essential gets – food production,” Bondlender wrote in his email.

Records obtained by The Seattle Times show Bonlender first contacted Inslee’s office on the Saturday before Inslee issued his stay home order. Senior Policy Advisor Charles Knutson responded that same day to confirm receipt of the email and to let Bonlender know he had shared the inquiry with Kathryn Leathers, the office’s general counsel.

Two days later, Bonlender followed up with Leathers to ask about both commercial fishing and residential construction. She soon responded. But it wasn’t the news Bonlender was looking for.

“I think the list is a work in progress, but I don’t believe commercial fishing is currently being considered an essential business,” Leathers wrote back. “As for housing construction, I think the same is likely probably true.”

Bonlender quickly responded to ask if agriculture and food production were considered essential. He noted that the Puget Sound Pollock fleet, along with other fishing fleets, “constitutes a lot of protein harvest.”

Ten minutes later, the email chain showed, Leathers wrote back with a promising update: agriculture and food production were considered essential as were “seafood slaughter facilities.”

“[S]o I’m going to guess that the suppliers are included,” she wrote. “Everyone wants an answer today, before the order is even finalized, and I understand that.”

But when Inslee issued his formal stay home proclamation later that same day, commercial fishing wasn’t specifically called out in his 14-page list of “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers.” 

After that, Bonlender said, he “pointed out to relevant state officials that the initial order was unclear as to whether the seafood industry was deemed essential.” Bonlender added that he wasn’t the only one from the fishing industry contacting the governor’s office at the time.

A week later, on March 31, Inslee’s office issued a revised order. In that update, workers in several industries, including geoduck fisheries and commercial fishing, were specifically called out as essential. 

“The Governor and his team were willing to listen and they ultimately decided to evolve their thinking,” Bonlender said.

An Inslee spokesperson told the news outlets that commercial fishing was always considered essential and only got special mention in the governor’s revised order because there was confusion about its status.

"Staff does not recall a point where commercial fishing and shellfish weren't a part of the essential business of food production," wrote Tara Lee, the governor's communications director. 

Bonlender said he was asked to contact the governor’s office in March because the COVID pandemic had required many in state government to assume new roles and responsibilities and it wasn’t always clear who was responsible for what.

"I was tasked with figuring that out and making the case for what may seem obvious -- that the seafood industry is part of the larger food industry," Bonlender said.

He also noted that, in addition to making inquiries on behalf of his clients, he worked, “on a voluntary basis,” to try to help the state procure personal protective equipment and ventilators in the early weeks of the pandemic. At one point, Bonlender said, a state official contacted him to see if he could help find local manufacturers who could make necessary components for ventilators.

“I wanted to do what I could to help, so I responded to those pleas,” Bonlender said.

This story was reported in collaboration with The Seattle Times.