State Senator Doug Ericksen recently came under fire in the Seattle Times for his possible abuse of surplus campaign funds to pay for expenses unrelated to official Washington state business when he was workingfor the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If true, that would be a clear violation of state campaign finance rules, which allow that such funds can be appropriately used “ to pay non-reimbursed public-office related expenses.” By which is meant official state business.
Senator Ericksen categorically denied the accusation, stating “All surplus fund expenditures are related to conducting my duties as an elected official.” By this he can mean only his activities and responsibilities as a Washington state senator. Two days later he made a similar denial on KGMI’s Morning Show with Dillon Honcoop. “None of my surplus funds account went for anything involved with my duties at the EPA,” he told listeners. “We used those dollars ethically . . . to make me a better state legislator.”
In this article, I take a critical look at these charges and Ericksen’s denials, basing my analysis on the available documentary evidence, not on his public pronouncements.
In a previous article written with Elisabeth Britt, we had concluded that Ericksen’s position as communications director of the EPA “beachhead team” had in fact ended by mid-February, when Scott Pruitt stepped in as the new administrator, and that those responsibilities had been assumed at least temporarily by another team member. When our article was published on April 26, the only information about Ericksen’s EPA salary that had been released by the agency (despite several Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests for more) showed his last pay period ending on February 18.
Indeed, state public-disclosure records reveal that Ericksen received the daily maximum $120 per diem for his work as the 42nd district senator continuously from February 21 through April 2—excluding the week of March 13 to 19. And during that week he obviously visited the nation’s capital again, as evidenced by an expenditure of $52.20 from his surplus campaign funds on Thursday, March 16 at the Elephant and Castle (which sounds a lot like a GOP watering hole I often walked past when I worked in DC during the 1990s) on Pennsylvania Avenue between the US Capitol and White House.
The record of these expenditures also shows a United Airlines ticket purchase of $321.80 on the same day, presumably for his flight to or from Washington, DC, or both. And it reveals a third purchase on Monday, March 13, for gasoline in Seattle. So one can readily conclude that Ericksen was in DC for several days in mid-March. Supposedly the reason for his visit was primarily Washington state business—if he is telling the truth and was indeed playing by the rules. At most he was there for five days in this period, from March 14 through March 18, and was back in Olympia on Monday, March 20.
After much prodding by Sandy Robson of Blaine, the FOIA office at the EPA headquarters finally released additional salary statements on May 10, one of which was for the two weeks ending Saturday, March 18. Although its entries are almost entirely redacted, this statement reveals that Ericksen received $9,619.92 at $77.58 per hour, which turns out to be for exactly 124 hours during that two-week period. That could correspond, for example, to six 10-hour workdays and eight 8-hour workdays during this period.
This is difficult to believe. The five days Doug could have been in DC contained a total of only 120 hours. Even including the Monday before this period, when he was probably flying east, I get just 144 hours. And the senator was presumably on the job in Olympia the prior week, when he was drawing per diems through Sunday, March 12. That doesn’t leave much time for sleep!
And it leaves hardly any time for doing Washington state business, which would be the only legal justification for his use of surplus campaign funds to cover his airfare, food and drinks. Therefore, lacking a credible explanation from Ericksen, I am forced to conclude that Seattle Times reporter Joseph O’Sullivan was correct in suggesting that these funds were misapplied for his own personal travel expenses or those related to his EPA work, which were most definitely not official state business.
Ericksen might contend that he worked some of these 124 hours when he was in Washington state, communicating via email with EPA headquarters. But presumably he was working full time or better on senate business during the demanding 2017 legislative session—and getting paid a salary and per diems while so doing. Reliable sources in the EPA Region 10 Office in Seattle told me they had never seen him there, although he’d been given a temporary office and loaned an EPA computer.
One could easily check such a claim by examining Ericksen’s EPA email records. But despite many FOIA requests for them, including one by O’Sullivan on February 3, no Ericksen emails have been released to date—likely indicating that the agency has been stonewalling such requests since Pruitt became EPA administrator. (While Oklahoma attorney general, he managed to stall release of his own emails for over two years.)
And because Ericksen should have been doing an extensive amount of EPA work between March 13 and March 18, given the 124 hours for which he was paid at week’s end, where would he have found time to attend to any significant state business? Was the $321.80 worth of surplus funds only partial payment for a United Airlines round-trip ticket? If so, the fraction applied should have been determined by the (necessarily small) fraction of his time that week spent on state business. And if so, what was that fraction?
By the same token, it strains credulity to accept that the $2,117.20 Ericksen spent from his surplus funds between January 19 and 23 at the Embassy Suites in downtown Washington was entirely due to official state business. This was the long inauguration weekend celebrating Donald Trump’s election victory, after all, and the partying was intense. Anyone who knows DC culture recognizes that it was a time for drinking, dancing and schmoozing, not for conducting Washington state business. It was a unique, not-to-be missed opportunity for one Douglas J. Ericksen to mingle with and present himself to the business moguls, conservative think-tank members, and powerful politicians managing the transition to the new regime and holding its reins.
And Ericksen’s EPA position officially began on Saturday, January 21, the day after the inauguration. By Monday, January 23, he was heavily engaged with the national press, so a good part of that hotel bill should have not have been paid from his surplus funds.
It has also been widely reported by Northwest publications that Ericksen was seeking a position as the director of the EPA Region 10 office in Seattle, to be in charge of more than 500 employees and a budget exceeding $300 million. But by mid-March, such a possibility was in steep decline, and Ericksen was soon talking about leadership positions at other agencies like the Agriculture and Interior Departments. Could the real aim of his March trip to DC have been to explore such other employment possibilities? If so, that was most definitely not official Washington state business.
Based on available evidence, it therefore looks likely that Sen. Ericksen used his surplus campaign account as a slush fund to help cover travel expenses he incurred in connection with his involvement in the new Trump regime—for which he was very well paid at the highest possible federal salary level. Or the funds were used to cover his own personal travel expenses involved in seeking a leadership role in that regime.
Either way, these expenditures were not intended to help make Senator Ericksen “a better state legislator” as he claimed.
Senator Ericksen was sent an earlier draft of this article and was given well over a day to reply, including to questions about his 124 hours of EPA work in mid-March, and the United Airlines and Embassy Suites expenditures, but he had not replied as of Wednesday at 1:00 pm when it was posted online.