Ethics Panel: Seattle Mayor Must Pay His Own Legal Bills in Sex Abuse Scandal

by | May 17, 2017

By Daniel Beekman

Mayor Ed Murray's supporters can't solicit money through the fund they've proposed to help him battle a lawsuit that accuses him of sexually abusing a teenager in the 1980s.

That's what the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission said Tuesday, as it issued an advisory opinion on the proposal.

"Given our current ethics code or what we care about," commission chair Eileen Norton said before the vote, "I just don't see a path in our current structure for a legal-defense fund."

Murray supporters asked the commission to weigh in earlier this month, saying an effective defense for the mayor could cost $1 million or more.

"The allegations in the suit are controversial and, especially given its timing, the suit is politically charged," their lawyers wrote in a letter to the commission.

"The mayor, a lifelong public servant, does not have the personal resources needed to fund his own legal defense."

Washington state and Seattle have no laws specific to legal-defense funds in support of public officials.

Murray supporters said the fund would be run independent from the mayor and said the trustee overseeing it would be former City Councilmember Martha Choe.

To guard against corruption and the appearance of corruption, all contributions to the fund would be unlimited but anonymous, the supporters said.

Contributors to the fund would sign confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements, they said.

Norton and other commissioners didn't buy that argument Tuesday.

The city's ethics code prohibits gifts to public officials that involve a quid pro quo or an appearance of impropriety -- a situation in which a reasonable person believes a gift has been given with the intent to influence an official.

Even with the proposed confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements, a legal-defense fund for Murray would give a reasonable person "heartburn," Norton said.

"The way I break this down, we're being asked to approve a mechanism to allow an elected official to solicit unlimited amounts of money from anonymous donors," she said. "There's no manner in which that fits into the state's and the city's attitudes towards transparency and accountability and disclosure."

Lawyers for the mayor's supporters said they would be open to disclosing and limiting the amount of contributions to the fund.

Norton said she wouldn't be comfortable with that either, barring a new state or city law or regulation specific to legal-defense funds.

In their advisory opinion, the panelists didn't directly address that possibility. But they said the fund as proposed would not be allowable under the ethics code, the commission won't draw up new regulations for legal-defense funds and the city's gifts prohibition would apply to any legal-defense fund.

Taki Flevaris, a lawyer for the Murray supporters, said the supporters would go back to the drawing board. But Wayne Barnett, the commission's executive director, said it's unlikely any fund would be considered legal.

Delvonn Heckard, 46, sued the mayor last month, alleging Murray sexually abused him when he was a teenager.

Two other men have made similar claims separate from the lawsuit, and a fourth man has alleged Murray had paid him for sex.

Murray denies the allegations but last week ended his campaign for re-election.

(c)2017 The Seattle Times