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Nickels Guilty of Ethics Violation

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Adam Weintraub
JUNK MAIL Campaign season chicanery.

On Monday night, after a lengthy and contentious meeting, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission narrowly ruled that Mayor Greg Nickels had violated the city's ethics code by producing and distributing an eight-page election-year document, titled "Mayor Greg Nickels: Three Years of Accomplishments," using city dollars and on city time. Specifically, the mayor was found guilty of "us[ing] city facilities to assist his campaign for reelection."

Ethics commission director Wayne Barnett filed the ethics charge against the mayor last week, arguing that the document was a "promotional" mailing meant to boost Nickels's reelection campaign. The 4-3 vote reflected a sharp division on the commission between those who agreed with Barnett that the mailing was "promotional" and those who believed it was merely "informational." Ultimately, however, the commission demanded that Nickels reimburse the city for the $2,205 cost of printing and mailing the flyer. But it stopped short of fining the mayor or asking him to reimburse the city for the estimated 110 hours three city employees spent producing the mailer.

Sean Sheehan, one of two assistant city attorneys who represented the mayor, argued that the mailing, which went to more than 3,000 households on a Department of Neighborhoods mailing list earlier this year, was merely informational. He compared the mailer repeatedly to a newsletter put together by city council member Nick Licata, called "Nick's Notes," which Sheehan called "every bit as promotional" as the Nickels mailing. But assistant city attorney Gary Keys, arguing for the ethics director, pointed out that Licata's mailing is "more like a newsletter in content," describing the council member's accomplishments in a larger context. And Keys pointed out that Licata's mailing, unlike Nickels's, mentions the mayor and four of Licata's council colleagues in addition to Licata.

"Does [Licata] mention himself? Of course. But does he take credit for everything? No," Keys said. In contrast, Keys noted, Nickels's flyer mentions just one other elected official—U.S. Senator Patty Murray, someone with whom commissioner Paul Dayton, who voted with the majority, argued Nickels "may wish to be associated while still taking credit for all the accomplishments of the city." The commission also did not accept Sheehan's argument that Nickels's mailing constituted "normal and regular" constituent outreaches, noting that the document was twice as long as any of Nickels's previous mailings and contained six pictures of the mayor—and none of any other elected official.

More damning, perhaps, than the mailing itself was its similarity to a portion of Nickels's campaign website, titled "Greg's Record of Accomplishment," whose content is virtually identical to that of the mayor's "accomplishments" mailing. Of 29 bullet points listed on the campaign site, only two— titled "Displaying environmental leadership" and "Keeping pedestrians safe"—were not also included in the document produced by the city, and the website language itself is cribbed almost word-for-word from the mayor's city-funded mailing. That would seem to imply that the mayor's employees were not merely running a de facto campaign operation from the mayor's office, but literally doing campaign business on city time. The commission declined, however, to address that issue, focusing instead on the content of the mailing and the fact that it was mailed at the beginning of an election year.

Nickels's attorney Sheehan argued that because the "accomplishments" flyer was mailed out in February, before Nickels had an opponent, it could not constitute a campaign mailing. "Campaigns don't start until you have an opponent," Sheehan said. "If [a mailing] talks about the candidate's beliefs and convictions at the expense of another campaign... that's when you have a violation." But some commissioners, including Robert Mahon, argued that election-year flyers could just as easily be used to "scare other candidates out of the race," noting that neighborhood activists were trying to recruit a candidate to run against Nickels as far back as January. "Its purpose may be to intimidate others, rather than solicit support for a vote," Mahon said. Commission Chair Bruce Heller, who, like Mahon, voted with the majority, agreed. If having an opponent is the standard, he said, "you're opening the door to a nightmare scenario where you could do anything as long as you didn't have an opponent."

On Tuesday, Barnett called the commission's vote "the right decision." Nickels spokeswoman Marianne Bichsel did not return a call for comment.

barnett@thestranger.com
 

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