President Obama’s choice for the government’s No. 2 housing job is embroiled in the largest fine in U.S. history for “blatant violations” of open records laws after the Washington State Supreme Court chastised his office for withholding documents detailing taxpayer costs for a new professional football stadium in Seattle.
The documents that Ronald Sims‘ office was found to have kept from the public when he served as King County executive included information about cheaper alternatives to the $430 million Seattle Seahawks stadium, which was built in 2002, according to a Washington Times review of the court records.
Washington’s highest court ruled in January that the withheld documents would have allowed voters in a referendum to challenge “the veracity” of King County’s request for $300 million in public bonds for the project. The justices found the actions of Mr. Sims‘ office to be so “egregious” that they scrapped a lower court’s order of a $123,780 fine - the largest ever assessed in a public records case - and recommended that the penalty be increased to as much as $825,000.
Mr. Obama nominated Mr. Sims as the top deputy at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) just three weeks after the court’s ruling, which harshly and repeatedly criticized Mr. Sims‘ office for its conduct during a 12-year legal fight.
If confirmed, Mr. Sims would help manage billions of federal dollars set aside for building, maintaining and operating public housing inside a government agency with a history of misspending and corruption. A Senate committee last week forwarded Mr. Sims‘ nomination to the full Senate without asking the nominee a single question.
Government watchdogs said Mr. Sims‘ nomination conflicts with the president’s oft-stated commitment to openness and transparency.
“Mr. Sims should publicly explain his role in violating Washington states public records law by improperly withholding documents related to the Seattle Seahawks stadium,” said Melanie Sloan, head of the public watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Given President Obamas commitment to transparency, there can be no place for officials who do not share that value.”
Mr. Sims has not been available for comment, his office said. The White House deferred questions to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan’s office, which signaled that the administration stands behind its nominee.
“Secretary Donovan continues to support the nomination of Ron Sims to be HUDs deputy secretary and looks forward to the Senates confirmation,” agency spokeswoman Melanie Roussell said.
In a recent impromptu television interview as he left a Senate hearing room, Mr. Sims told WNO-TV that while a public-records lawsuit in the case targeted his office and a court levied a fine, he denied ever withholding any documents. He said flatly that he had no involvement whatsoever in the matter.
But the court files include an Aug. 27, 1997, letter from Mr. Sims to Seattle businessman Armen Yousoufian, who filed the Public Records Act request for the stadium documents and later sued Mr. Sims‘ office. The letter, signed by Mr. Sims, shows that the county executive was aware of the matter and took part in the decision on how to respond.
Mr. Sims wrote that he was aware of the requests by Mr. Yousoufian for the documents and apologized for “any misunderstanding” in the delay in making them public. He said it was his intention to be “cooperative and helpful.”