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Glacier’s political contributions trigger concerns

A small group of Islanders has filed an ethics complaint against Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland, saying he should recuse himself from a decision about Glacier Northwest because of financial support his re-election effort is receiving from the mining corporation.

Sutherland is poised to decide whether to issue Glacier a lease to state-owned aquatic lands, one of the last hurdles in the corporation’s decade-long effort to dramatically expand mining operations at its 235-acre site on Maury Island. Meanwhile, records filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) show that Glacier on Sept. 8 donated $50,000 to the Committee for Balanced Stewardship, a PAC formed to provide independent support of Sutherland’s electoral bid.

Sutherland, a Republican who’s seeking a third term as the public official overseeing the state’s 5.6 million acres of forest, agricultural and aquatic lands, is being challenged by Democrat Peter Goldmark, an Okanogan rancher.

Patty Henson, a spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which Sutherland heads, said she had not seen the complaint but suggested it had little merit. Glacier’s donation went to a PAC, not directly to Sutherland’s campaign coffers.

“Their dollars do not go to the candidate’s campaign,” she said. “The candidate has nothing to do with these kinds of groups.”

But Priscilla Beard, one of five people who filed the complaint, said there’s no question that Sutherland is benefitting from the PAC and its expenditures. And while it’s legal for Glacier to give money to the PAC, the timing of its donation makes it seem “like a quid pro quo,” she said.

“It just doesn’t feel right to me,” she said.

The Committee for Balanced Stewardship, formed in 2004, has so far raised nearly $600,000 and spent $19,000 as part of this fall’s election season, according to its most recent filing with the PDC. All of its contributions except Glacier’s have come from Washington state timber companies. The largest amount is $100,000 from Weyerhaeuser; at $50,000, Glacier’s contribution is the third-largest amount the PAC has received.

Records show that Glacier did not contribute to the PAC in 2004, when it raised more than $300,000 in support of Sutherland’s re-election bid.

Beard said the timing, in particular, troubles her. Glacier’s request for a lease is currently being reviewed by DNR staff. And while some leases are not signed by the head of the agency, this one — because of its size and scope — will ultimately go to Sutherland for a final decision once his staff completes their review and forwards a recommendation.

At the same time, DNR staff is reviewing another issue that could cost Glacier both time and money — the recent finding by anti-Glacier activists that its site on Maury contains state-owned precious metals. Preserve Our Islands recently found gold on the site, near areas where Glacier has already extracted tons of sand and gravel. The activist group suggests that Glacier, as a result, could owe the state millions of dollars, since the state retained the mineral rights when it sold the land decades ago.

“It’s politically legal,” Beard said of Glacier’s contribution. “It’s just a little bit shady with their two decisions on the table.”

But Fran McNair, who heads DNR’s aquatic resources program, took issue with Beard’s concerns, saying that staff is taking a careful and independent examination of Glacier’s lease request. The waters surrounding Maury are protected as one of three state-managed aquatic reserves created to protect the marine environment.

McNair said she and her staff are using a management plan for the aquatic reserve as a touchstone in their analysis. A memo Sutherland sent to McNair in July outlined several conditions Glacier has to meet to receive a lease, issues McNair said her staff is now reviewing.

“The staff is taking it very seriously,” she said. “The management plan creates a bar. It’s an aquatic reserve, and we take this very seriously.”

Pete Stoltz, permit coordinator for Glacier, said he felt confident Sutherland will be able to make an impartial decision, even with Glacier’s contribution to the PAC.

“My understanding is that there are a lot of people involved in the lease decision besides Doug Sutherland, and I don’t think the contribution has any bearing on that,” he said. “We wouldn’t want anything besides a sound, defensible decision on the aquatic lease.”

According to both DNR and Glacier, the company — wholly owned by a Japanese conglomerate — has secured all the county, state and federal permits it needs to begin building a 305-foot barge-loading pier, a precursor to its effort to begin a huge expansion of its now modest sand and gravel operation on Maury Island. Preserve Our Islands (POI), a grassroots group formed in opposition to Glacier’s expansion, is fighting Glacier’s latest permit in federal court.

Glacier has said it is poised to begin building its pier as soon as it receives the lease from DNR. In fact, earlier this month, county officials were prepared to give Glacier the go-ahead to begin excavating a staging area for its massive construction project until POI vigorously protested, according to Amy Carey, who heads POI.

In her complaint, filed with the state Executive Ethics Board, Beard suggests that Sutherland’s failure to recuse himself from the two decisions pertaining to Glacier is a violation of two state laws governing the ethics of state employees.

One says that an employee cannot accept directly or indirectly any “reward from any other person beneficially interested in the contract, sale, lease, purchase or grant.” The other says that a state employee cannot have “an interest, financial or otherwise, ... or incur obligation of any nature” that conflicts with his or her official duties.

Beard’s complaint, which was signed by four other Islanders, is the latest in a long line of efforts to keep the mining giant from moving forward.

But Stewart Jay, a University of Washington Law School professor and Vashon resident, said the ethics complaint will likely have little impact on the process.

It can take the Ethics Board months and even years to investigate a complaint, he said. And when it does find that a state employee abused his or her position, the fines the board issues are usually nominal.

“I don’t think the legal route has much chance of success,” he said.

As a citizen, however, Jay said he found Beard’s complaint compelling.

“It seems unseemly,” he said of Glacier’s contribution. “Obviously, it’s subterfuge. It goes to show the connection between Glacier and Sutherland.”

 

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