The recent rash of national news about corruption at the Environmental Protection Agency under Administrator Scott Pruitt brings back to mind repeated charges leveled last year that Senator Doug Ericksen was “double dipping” while serving on the EPA “beachhead” transition team between January and May 2017. A detailed examination of documents obtained by federal FOIA requests and state public-records requests bears out this contention.
During the first half of 2017, in fact, Ericksen raked in a total of $101,829 from state and federal sources, according to these documents. Of that total, he received $40,031 for 516 hours that he supposedly worked for the EPA. Add to that his annual $46,839 salary as state senator, all of it received during the first six months the legislature was in session, plus $14,959 in state per-diem payments to cover lodging and meals, and you obtain the above six-figure sum.
From a list of his per-diem payments, obtained by Brian Estes of Bellingham, Ericksen was paid $9,950.75 in all during the January 21 to May 20 period he served as a senior adviser to the EPA headquarters in Washington, DC. That corresponds to almost 83 days at the standard daily rate of $120, leaving 37 days that he could have worked entirely on EPA business. At eight hours per day, that’s 296 hours in all; at ten hours per day, that’s 370 hours, still well short of the 516 hours for which the EPA actually paid Ericksen, according to records that Sandy Robson of Birch Bay obtained through FOIA requests. It’s simple arithmetic.
(In fact, on one of those days for which he received a state per-diem payment, May 15, 2017, Ericksen was actually in Washington, DC, enjoying a $100 meal at BLT Prime, a posh restaurant inside the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, right across 12th Street from EPA headquarters, as his filings with the state Public Disclosure Commission indicate. That sure sounds like double-dipping.)
Unless he was shirking his legislative responsibilities, it’s hard to imagine that Ericksen could have found much, if any, time for EPA business during the 83 days he was receiving per-diem payments for supposedly working on Washington state legislation. It was an intense legislative session. Senators and representatives worked well into the evenings—and some into the wee morning hours—to keep abreast of proposed measures and pull together a multibillion-dollar state budget that could pass both houses and obtain the governor’s signature.
Another way to regard these numbers is to recognize that 516 hours during that 120-day stretch corresponds to 4.3 hours per day doing EPA work, including weekends. If you only count weekdays, it’s more like 5.2 hours per day. Either way, that doesn’t leave a lot of time for state legislative work. Again, it’s just arithmetic.
The next question that arises is: “Where was Ericksen actually doing that EPA work?” After a disastrous first week as EPA communications director, he seems to have beat a retreat to Olympia and only returned to Washington, DC for three brief stints in February, March and May 2017, according to his per-diem records and filings with the state Public Disclosure Commission. The Seattle Region 10 EPA office had given him an office and agency computer, but none of the three staff members I spoke with—including Public Affairs Specialist Bill Dunbar, who sits on the same floor— could remember him being present during that period.
This absence seems particularly curious when Ericksen was widely known to be angling for a top-level executive position in the Region 10 office. One would think that he’d have seized this opportunity to spend at least a little time working there and get to know some of the leaders and staff.
That leaves only working with EPA headquarters by computer or phone from home or his Olympia office. But multiple attempts by several individuals, including Estes and Seattle Times political reporter Joseph O’Sullivan, to obtain his EPA email records through FOIA requests have so far turned up empty-handed despite a year or more wait. That begs the inevitable question, “What is the EPA hiding?”
Another concern, related to a current EPA controversy in which two young staffers close to Pruitt received bloated five-figure pay raises, is that Ericksen was granted the highest possible salary that a regular federal worker could attain—then $161,900 annually or $77.58 per hour, corresponding the GS-15 level, step 10. From my experience working with the Department of Energy, Ph.D. scientists often toil for years at federal agencies before reaching such a lofty salary level. What special expertise did Ericksen bring to the job that justified such a high starting salary rate? And who, in fact, made the decision to grant it?
This is especially noteworthy when you consider that Ericksen was about to begin a $133,000 position as a senior adviser in the Region 10 office in January 2018 when he suddenly backed out of it. Corresponding to GS-15, step 2, that is probably closer to his appropriate pay grade when considering his education, experience and job skills. And had he been working at this salary level in early 2017, that would have saved the EPA (and US taxpayers) a total of $7,146.
The final nagging question in my mind has to do with the nature of the work that Ericksen was supposedly doing during those 516 hours. According to the usual ethical standards, he was reportedly excluded from working on any matter that could benefit Washington state — an obvious conflict of interest. That is one reason he was apparently tasked to serve as the beachhead team’s communications director, but that position was reportedly assumed by another team member in February. And despite modern telecommunications technology, it remains awfully cumbersome to direct public communications activities from thousands of miles away. Here again, a look at Ericksen’s EPA emails would be very helpful in addressing this question.
In the last analysis, the available documentary evidence supports the widespread conclusion that Doug Ericksen was in fact “double dipping” during his 120-day stint on the EPA beachhead team last year, as argued. There are only so many days in the workweek and hours in the workday. He would have had to work almost around the clock to have logged over 500 hours and still done justice to his responsibilities as state senator. Maybe that superhuman feat would show up in his emails if they ever see the light of day. Or perhaps we would discover that Ericksen was getting paid for not working at all.