NOTE: Since this story was published, Sen. Ericksen has released a batch of records generated by a public records request that show staffers in the governor’s office had misgivings about the Pflug appointment. See story here.
OLYMPIA, Oct. 18.—Here’s one sign that the 5th District Senate race is a biggie. Cheryl Pflug resigned the seat five months ago, amid circumstances that struck many as stinky. And people are still talking about it. Not just talking about it, but alleging a scandal that goes to the top.
They’re calling it a sordid episode of corruption that aimed to boost Democratic chances of picking up the seat in November. And while there might not be anything new about the charge, now one of the people pointing the finger is a Democrat himself, a candidate who is running for a House seat in the same district. Another is a Republican senator who announced Thursday he will introduce a bill next session making the whole thing illegal.
“Not all forms of corruption are currently illegal, but this legislation will once and for all make it clear that the type of corruption that occurred in the Cheryl Pflug case, involving Gov. Christine Gregoire, cannot happen again,” said state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.
It is a charge that is sure to figure in the increasingly Senate contest that is playing out in the 5th Legislative District, in Issaquah, Maple Valley and points east. Democrat Mark Mullet and Republican Brad Toft are battling for the open seat Pflug once occupied, and ordinarily mortgage broker Toft might stand a better-than-even chance in the Republican-leaning district. But since mid-summer opponents have directed a steady drumbeat of accusations at him, pointing to past legal troubles, a likely-accidental case of resume inflation, and a charge from a disgruntled former employee that he was an abusive boss. At the very least the counterattack demonstrates the 5th is no ordinary race, and that these things cut both ways.
A Pivotal Contest
The east King County district has emerged as a key battleground in the contest for control of the Senate. Democrats have a slim 27-22 advantage in the Senate, and Republicans are counting on picking up at least a couple of seats in November. If the GOP can win three they take home the prize – control of the Senate. Losing the 5th District will make it considerably harder.
Last spring everyone assumed Republican Pflug would be defending her seat in November. She confirmed it when she filed for office May 18, the final day of filing week. But the following Monday, Democrat Gregoire announced that Pflug would be appointed to the state’s Growth Management Hearings Board. And to many it looked like more than a demonstration of bipartisanship. The announcement came on the one day of the four-year election cycle when maximum political advantage could be obtained. Because the appointment was announced after filing week had ended, it was too late for the Republicans to find another candidate — for instance, 5th District House Republican Jay Rodne. Yet it also was the final day for Pflug to strike her name from the ballot, enabling her to resign and assume the position July 1.
It was definitely what one might call a family-wage job. It pays $92,500 a year over a six-year term. The appointment also increases Pflug’s pension benefits by approximately $400,000, giving the package a total value of approximately $1 million.
By exiting that day, Pflug left one Republican candidate in the running – Toft, who had declared his candidacy months before. Meanwhile the Democrats had lined up a fairly strong candidate of their own, Issaquah city councilman Mark Mullet. Pflug promptly endorsed Democrat Mullet in the race.
Pflug says it was a coincidence things played out that way. She scoffs at talk of dark dealings. Yes, she needed a better-paying job – she’s a single mom with kids in college. She says the governor’s office simply didn’t tell her she had it until May 21. When you get an offer like that one, you can’t say no.
“I’m not as committed to the whole Republican-Democrat thing as others are, because I haven’t really noticed that either party is particularly respectful of the other, and so it seems to me that we get the best of it when we are in a tight split,” she said. “But it also seems to me that they are imbuing me with a lot more power than I have, to say that this will decide control of the Senate. I mean, they have got quite a few districts that they have to take care of before we get down to the 5th. I don’t think things are going to be as close as they think they are going to be.”
Led Her to Temptation
Ericksen says the episode is as smelly as can be. A million dollars is a rather strong inducement, he says, and using taxpayer dollars makes it all the worse. Ericksen announced Thursday that he will introduce legislation blocking the governor from appointing sitting lawmakers to paid positions on boards and commissions. The prohibition would begin one month before the filing week when a legislator is up for re-election, and it would last until one month after a general election.
Ericksen takes pains to point out he thinks Toft is a fine candidate. After Pflug exited Toft picked up the backing of the Senate Republican Caucus campaign committee. But as for the gubernatorial appointment that put the race in play, Ericksen says Gregoire and Democratic Party strategists took advantage of a vulnerable legislator. “I think the timing and the clear intent to influence a race for the state Senate is clearly what is at issue here,” he said. “I think they preyed upon Cheryl Pflug, who was a disgruntled employee, essentially. She had her leadership positions taken away and had been moved from a committee ranking position, and was clearly an unhappy employee of the state Senate. She was in a difficult financial situation as a single mother, and Gov. Gregoire clearly exploited that situation for her own shady deals.
“There is no other way to explain it. Obviously you had a deal between the two, but Gov. Gregoire was the person in power who exploited the situation that Cheryl Pflug found herself in. It is a million-dollar payoff to a single mother, so obviously taxpayer dollars are changing hands, all with the express and clear intent to influence an election to the state Senate. So that is why my legislation is so needed. It will make it clear that this type of activity cannot happen in the future.”
Democrat Calls it Bribery
You might expect a Republican to say such a thing. But a rather curious development came last week when David Spring, a Democratic candidate for an open House seat in the same district, leveled a similar charge on his website. Spring kicks it a notch higher, calling it bribery. If one uses the term in a legal sense, as Spring does, it is a bit of a stretch. It’s not as though there were any envelopes stuffed with cash. But Spring says Pflug made a decision as a public official that offered something of value in return for money – her Senate seat.
“You have to understand that I am a loyal Democrat, my parents were Democrats, my grandparents were Democrats, and I do not in any way want to say anything bad about the Democratic Party,” Spring said. “This really pains me. …This bribery thing is very damaging to the reputation of the Democratic Party, but in the long run it will be better for senators and representatives to come forward and say what they know, and to share with the public that they believe that there are some people in the Democratic Party who care about the state constitution. So that is why I am trying to get people to come forward.”
Spring’s website presents a lengthy dissertation about the curious facts of the case, arguing that the whole thing was planned well in advance. None of them meet what might be called a legal standard of proof. But among other things, Spring points out that Pflug didn’t bother raising money for the race, an odd thing when one considers that she faced opposition in both parties. And that she still hasn’t passed the state bar exam – one of the qualifications for hearing board examiners that is outlined by state statute. Pflug recently received her law degree from Seattle University, but has not yet taken the test.
The governor’s office points out that the strict wording of the law does not require that all hearing examiners be admitted to the state bar, just three out of the seven. And the whole idea that anything untoward happened is simply wrong, says Gregoire spokeswoman Karina Shagren. “There is absolutely no truth to that,” she said.
All Eyes on Pflug
Certainly the continuing furor demonstrates that Pflug’s exit hasn’t been forgotten. Last Saturday at midnight, when the state Bar Association posted the names of those who had passed the bar exam in July, some checked immediately to see if Pflug’s name was on the list. It wasn’t. Gossip quickly spread in political circles. Did she flunk? But no, the reason was simple – she didn’t take the test.
Applicants for the summer bar exam have to make application in April, Pflug explained. At that point she was still figuring on running for re-election – and who has time to study during the middle of an election campaign? She’ll be taking the test in February instead. “I guess they don’t understand how this works very well,” she said. “There goes the conspiracy theory.”