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American Shipper

State vows tougher Seattle port oversight, revoking port tax authority

State vows tougher Seattle port oversight, revoking port tax authority

Washington lawmakers on Wednesday vowed to toughen state laws regarding port procurement following a raucous Port of Seattle public hearing reviewing a highly critical state audit of the port.

   Several state lawmakers, spurred on by the findings of the audit, have promised to begin a legislative review of the audit's findings within two weeks and introduce legislation revoking the port's authority to collect more than $75 million a year in local property taxes to support port operations.

   The lawmakers' comments come following a Tuesday port meeting where nearly 200 people crowded the Port of Seattle commission chambers to comment on the audit — released three weeks ago — that blasted port officials and staff for squandering $97.2 million of taxpayer funds over the past three years.

   Most of the 'unnecessary costs' detailed in the nearly 350-page audit relate to two contracts related to the construction of a third runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which the port authority manages in addition to the port.

   One of the two contracts, awarded to consultant Parsons Brinkerhoff, ballooned from an original estimate of $10 million to $120 million without competitive bids. The audit found that port engineers could have done the job much cheaper and saved taxpayers $60.5 million. The second contract, awarded to construction firm TTI, came in $32.5 million higher than the port's original estimate. The audit found that the contract violated state law and details were kept from the port commission.

   In addition to the violations of state law, the audit also found that port officials did not follow proper contract bidding procedures and in some cases allowed vendors to make decisions reserved for port officials. The audit also claimed that some port staff members impeded audit investigators and refused to certify the accuracy of the information that was provided. In some cases, the audit investigators found that records were altered before being turned over by the port.

   The audience at Tuesday's hearing appeared evenly divided between supporters with business ties to the port and members of the public railing against the nearly 50 indications of possible fraud uncovered by the audit. The normally two-hour meeting lasted more than four, as dozens of speakers took an opportunity to address the five-member port commission and either praise or criticize the port.

   State Auditor Brian Sonntag's office conducted the audit early last year in response to the 2005 state voter-approved Initiative 900 that gave Sonntag the power to conduct performance reviews of Washington state's largest government agencies whenever he deemed it necessary.

   While Sonntag's authority does not include proving any wrongdoing on the part of the port, the published audit found that the port was “vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse.”

   On Monday, U.S. Justice Department officials said they have launched a criminal investigation into port activities uncovered by the audit.

   Despite pledges from the port at Tuesday's meeting to adopt dozens of corrective recommendations suggested by the audit and take a 'zero-tolerance' attitude toward fraud, members of the public, the state auditor and even state lawmakers appeared unconvinced.

   Bob Williams, president of the conservative think tank Evergreen Freedom Foundation, slammed port Chief Executive Officer Tay Yoshitani’s promise to hire an outside investigator to look for fraud.

   “We don’t trust the port staff,' Williams told the commission. 'We don’t trust who the port hires.”

   Sonntag's written testimony submitted to the port commission Tuesday detailed his skepticism of the port’s sincerity, stating that the port only agrees with 20 out of 51 corrective recommendations made by the audit and six out of its 23 findings. Port officials have refuted many of the audit's findings, maintaining that while port policies were broken, no laws were.

   Following Tuesday's meeting state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Bellevue, and Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, told the Seattle Post Intelligencer they are taking the audit’s findings “very seriously.” Hunter, who is chair of the state legislature's House finance committee, said that at the very least he would seek to pass legislation forcing port officials to adopt all of the audit's corrective recommendations.

   The state legislature's House Appropriations subcommittee on general government and audit review chair, Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, said her committee would begin a review of the audit within two weeks.

   Also on Wednesday, state Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, announced plans to introduce legislation repealing the port's authority to collect local property taxes. The port collected $76 million in King County property taxes last year.

   Local activist Tim Eyman, who championed the passage of the I-900 initiative that led to the audit, said at the meeting that he would seek a further voter initiative to strip the port of its property tax collection authority. ' Keith Higginbotham

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