Timber industry hire eyed as ethics issue
Natural Resources employee given job
January 7, 2006
By Robert McClure
Normally, if someone kills or harms an endangered species, that person is in big legal trouble. But Washington's timber industry won't face such prosecution under a controversial 50-year deal worked out with the federal government by the state Department of Natural Resources.
Now comes word that the person who headed the DNR team assigned to secure that promise on behalf of the timber industry has quit her job. Her new employer: The timber industry.
Debora Brown Munguia was often the face of the DNR as the agency advocated for the deal. She answered the public's questions, defended the state's position and dealt with federal wildlife officials on behalf of the state.
Just days after the final state document needed to obtain the 50-year Endangered Species Act exemption went to the printers in late December, Munguia announced that she would become governmental relations director at the Washington Forest Protection Association.
An environmentalist lawyer who has clashed with the state over the deal is questioning whether Munguia's move violates the state's ethics law. He and a former state lawyer who is now a law professor said her acceptance of the job raises questions about her actions while still a state employee.
"The problem with people switching hats like this is that it undermines the public's confidence that the government is objective," said Peter Goldman, head of the Washington Forest Law Center. "The fox used to be just watching the henhouse. Now the fox is inside the henhouse eating the hens, or at least sharpening the knives."
Munguia and the timber lobby, however, said her new job does not constitute a conflict of interest and is lawful.
"I'm absolutely comfortable I have not violated any laws or done anything unethical," Munguia said. "There's not a conflict of interest on that."
The state ethics law says a state employee is not allowed to help anyone "in any transaction involving the state in which the former state officer or state employee at any time participated during state employment." The maximum penalty for violating it is a $5,000 fine.
Susan Harris, executive director of Washington's Executive Ethics Board, said her four-person staff would not investigate unless someone files a formal complaint.
"We don't have enough information to go forward at this point, and without a complaint, we won't get that information in this case," Harris said.
At issue is a 1999 plan put together by the timber industry, along with federal and state and some tribal officials. It is designed to prevent timber companies and state officials who authorize logging from being prosecuted for harming protected salmon.
The plan commits the timber industry to leave forested buffers along some streams used by salmon. The companies also are obligated to repair roads that slough dirt into streams and to open up additional stream habitat to salmon. Even before winning federal approval of the deal, the state has made those requirements mandatory.
While no one questions whether these steps will help imperiled fish, critics say they are not enough to win the 50-year absolution from prosecution.
Two independent science reviews were critical. One, authored by two professional science societies, called the plan "uninformed." Nevertheless, it was approved in a bipartisan vote by the Legislature by about a two-thirds margin.
From 2002 until she quit at the end of December, Munguia's job was to transform the deal worked out in 1999 plan into a federal "habitat conservation plan." The National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working on final approval of the deal now.
David Mears, who formerly worked as an assistant attorney general for the state and is now a law professor at Vermont Law School, said Washington's ethics law is "very broad." Whether Munguia's action violates it would turn on whether the deal between the state and the federal government constitutes a "transaction" that also benefits the timber industry, he said.
"The timber industry is clearly a critically affected party, has a very high interest in the implementation" of the plan, Mears said. He said that since the timber industry benefits from the deal, "It isn't clear to me that she wouldn't be covered" by the ethics law.
Mears, who has had no role in the controversy, said the law's purpose is "to ensure the public that state employees, when they are in the employ of the state, are representing the interests of the state at large. If she were to go to work for (the timber lobby), it would certainly raise a question in my mind: When she was working for the state, was she writing (the plan) with that in mind?"
Munguia and the timber lobby, as well as Munguia's old bosses at the state, point out that Munguia was carrying out the orders of the Legislature.
And, they say, it is federal Fish and Wildlife officials -- not Munguia's old agency -- who have the final say on whether the plan meets muster.
Munguia managed a team of DNR employees, including scientists, who helped her write the application for the exemption, and the entire process was the subject of numerous public meetings, said DNR spokeswoman Patty Henson.
"We didn't have Debora sitting in a room filled with cigar smoke making deals with herself," Henson said.
Pat McElroy, DNR director of regulatory programs, said, "I can assure you that when Deb was working for DNR, she was working for DNR. She did her job in an exemplary fashion."
Cindy Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the timber-lobby group, echoed DNR's assertions. She also pointed out that Munguia never directly regulated WFPA or its members, the timber companies.
"She had nothing to do with anything that was going to favor the industry," Mitchell said. "She was a collector of information."
Of the questions being raised about the hire, Mitchell said: "I'm insulted. My boss is known for recruiting the best talent in town."
Her boss is Bill Wilkerson, head of the timber lobbying group.
He formerly served as an environmental adviser to the governor and as head of the state Department of Wildlife.
P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or email@example.com.
© 1998-2006 Seattle Post-Intelligencer