Earmark investigation: Rep. Norm Dicks and Puget Sound

In January 2007, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) became chairman of a congressional subcommittee that gave him the power to secure millions in federal funds to environmental projects in his district.

Six months later, the congressman requested millions of dollars to clean up Puget Sound — a vital but polluted system of waterways in his home state of Washington, according to White House records.

His interests on behalf of the sound aligned with those of his son, David Dicks, who at the time was interviewing to be executive director for a newly created state agency, the Puget Sound Partnership. In August 2007, he got the job, which required him to develop a plan for coordinating state and federal efforts to clean up the nation’s second-largest estuary, which is only overshadowed by the Chesapeake Bay.

Over the next four years, father and son worked in tandem to restore Puget Sound, with the congressman directing millions more to the work, including a $1.82 million earmark and more than $14 million in grants and other funds that went to his son’s agency. There were no competitors for the funds.

The earmark and grants are unreported elements in the story of the father and son and Puget Sound, which has long been controversial in the Pacific Northwest, spawning charges of nepotism, waste and no-bid contracts, according to state audits and political opponents.

Norm Dicks lost his chairmanship in the Republican takeover of the House in 2010, and his son stepped down from his $129,000-a-year job around the same time.

The case illustrates the complications that can arise when a lawmaker’s congressional actions benefit not only his district but also a family member. Both father and son insist they were only trying to save the environment and serve the people of Washington.

“This is a very important issue for the people in my state. This isn’t about me or my son,” the 71-year-old congressman said during an interview in his Capitol office. “David got the job through a competitive process . . . he had the passion for the job.”

David Dicks, 40, said the group’s success in pursuing federal funds was because his father had become chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on the interior, environment and related agencies.

“He didn’t have the power to do this before,” David Dicks said. “He didn’t do it for me; he did it because he cares about Puget Sound and he finally had the ability to do something about it.”

But their critics say good intentions were undercut by favoritism.

“Everyone was scratching everyone’s back with this Puget Sound Partnership,” said Republican state Sen. Mark Schoesler, who has been a vocal critic of the partnership. “They were banking on daddy Dicks to bring money home, and then his son squandered it.”

Beginning in 2006, Congressman Dicks and David Dicks were both active in efforts to create a state agency to clean up the sound. The congressman served on the governor’s blue ribbon panel that recommended forming the partnership, which would serve as coordinator for local, state and federal efforts. David Dicks, an environmental lawyer, wrote passages in the panel’s final report on funding and political strategies for such a partnership.

“Your kids are going to do things that you have been involved with,” Norm Dicks said. “I don’t think there was a conflict. We are all trying our best to restore Puget Sound.”

David Dicks was appointed by Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire. The governor’s spokesman said Dicks’s environmental credentials “made him highly competitive.”

As executive director of the new agency, David Dicks’s job included raising funds for and coordinating with local, state and federal agencies that would be the “boots on the ground.” In public hearings, he spoke of his ability to secure federal funds and was repeatedly praised for doing so.

“When we started this, we were getting $1 million for the sound program through EPA,” David Dicks said during a Nov. 6, 2010, hearing in Olympia. “We were then able to leverage that up to $20 million for two years and then up to $50 million. That obviously is a big, serious increase in the federal support.”

In addition to the earmark and grants, federal records show Congressman Dicks was able to raise the annual budget for all Puget Sound-related work during his tenure as chairman, reaching a height of $50 million in 2010. During the hearing, David Dicks said all the money went to support the partnership’s cleanup and restoration agenda.

With his House subcommittee chairmanship, Dicks was considered an appropriations “cardinal,” holding the purse strings of the federal budget. As such, the congressman said he knew that both he and his son would be criticized if he delivered money directly to the Puget Sound Partnership.

On June 26, 2007, Congressman Dicks introduced his first appropriations bill with money for Puget Sound. He later asked that the funds he secured be sent directly to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We knew there would be sensitivity,” the congressman said. “We sent it to the regional EPA office, not to the partnership, and had them create a competitive process.”

The funds had to be used on an “action agenda,” Norm Dicks said — work that the partnership was charged to perform.

EPA officials said in phone calls and e-mails that recipients of the funds had to go through a “competitive” process.

However, EPA records show that $6.1 million of the funds were given in 2008 and 2009 through a noncompetitive agreement, largely to fund the action agenda.

Confronted with the records, and after several weeks of exchanges with The Post, the EPA backed away from characterizing the process for the funds as competitive.

“While responding to The Washington Post’s detailed requests for information related to EPA’s work with the Puget Sound Partnership, we found that two pieces of information we provided were incorrect,” said Tom Eaton, Washington state operations office director for the EPA. “In both cases, as soon as we realized our error, we provided the correct information.”

An additional $5.99 million was given in 2010 for the action agenda through a grant process for which there was only one applicant — the Puget Sound Partnership. The agency was also the only applicant in 2009 for a $2 million grant for community outreach and education for Puget Sound restoration efforts.

The congressman’s spokesman, George Behan, said that Norm Dicks believed that none of the funds can be considered earmarks because the money went through a national program at the EPA, not directly to the Puget Sound Partnership.

“You can call it whatever you want, but at the end of the day, it’s an earmark,” said Steve Ellis, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense. “There was a lot of verbiage and hyperbole about how it was going to be competitively bid, but the facts clearly show that this is a case of a lawmaker directing funds to a specific entity that also happened to employ his son.”

In early 2009, the Washington State Auditor’s Office started looking at state funds given to the partnership, a state agency that has 40 employees and receives $3 million in state funds and $7.57 million in federal funds for its annual budget.

In May 2010, auditors found the partnership “circumvented state contracting laws, exceeded its purchasing authority and made unallowable purchases with public funds,” incurring “costs without clear public benefit.”

Auditors pointed out that the Seattle office of the K&L Gates law firm had been given a no-bid contract, receiving up to $478 an hour and a total of $51,498. The firm has been a campaign donor to the congressman.

“Under state contracting laws, you have to go out to bid on anything that is $20,000 or more. This contract was originally $19,999. Now come on — that shows intent,” State Auditor Brian Sonntag said in an interview in his Olympia office. “That tells me they were looking for a way to direct that contract without opening it to competition.”

“I think of all the things that happened, the way we executed that contract was the weakest thing we did,” David Dicks said. “We shouldn’t have done it that way.”

The state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee issued its own audit in December, finding that the action agenda failed to include “required benchmarks” to determine if “progress is being made.”

The audit triggered a review by the EPA, which called on the partnership to return more than $120,000 in funds after finding several contracts and agreements that lacked certifications to show the agency received the goods and services it had paid for.

A week after Republicans took control of the House in November 2010, David Dicks resigned from the Puget Sound Partnership.

“It was a difficult time,” he said. “I left a lucrative law practice to help save Puget Sound. No one was expecting the response that me and my father got.”

NORM DICKS
D-Wash., House

In 2008, Dicks secured a $1.82 million earmark for a Washington state agency that worked to clean up Puget Sound, above, and where his son worked as executive director, according to White House records. Over the next three years, the congressman also sent nearly $14 million to the Environmental Protection Agency, which gave the funds to his son’s agency, the Puget Sound Partnership. “I don’t think there was a conflict. We are all trying our best to restore Puget Sound,” Dicks said.
Kimberly Kindy is a government accountability reporter at The Washington Post.
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