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.
“There’s nothing in the court record at all involving me personally,” Mr. Sims said. “I never was involved in that at all. There’s nothing regarding my conduct.”
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.”
“Since our office received your first request for information, we have, along with the Office of Stadium Administration, attempted to provide you with access to all of the information you were seeking,” he wrote. “Mr. Yousoufian, my staff and I are more than happy to make available to you any disclosable information.”
In fact, the documents were withheld for several more years until after Mr. Yousoufian sued and won, court records show.
On Jan. 15, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the refusals by Mr. Sims’ office to make the requested documents public constituted “blatant violations of the state Public Records Act.” It also said the lower court “abused its discretion” by imposing a $15-a-day penalty in response to the “grossly negligent noncompliance” by Mr. Sims’ office. The high court suggested, instead, that under the law, the penalty could be as high as $100 a day, which would increase the fine to $825,000.
State Supreme Court Justice Richard B. Sanders wrote that the actions of Mr. Sims’ office were “so egregious” as to warrant a fine at the “high end” of the act’s penalty range. He said the unchallenged findings of fact demonstrated that Mr. Sims’ office “repeatedly deceived and misinformed” Mr. Yousoufian.
“King County failed to reply to Yousoufians clear request promptly or accurately,” Justice Sanders said. “King County either made no explanation of its noncompliance or misrepresented the truth. The potential for public harm was high; the requested records tested the veracity of King Countys assertions regarding a pending referendum on a $300 million public financing scheme.”
The justices sent the case back to Superior Court with a recommendation to increase the penalty.
Noting that Mr. Yousoufian wanted documents concerning a then-pending referendum, Justice Sanders said the decision to delay disclosure for years beyond the election day was “without justification.” He also said that “with proper diligence and attention,” Mr. Sims’ office could have responded accurately to the Yousoufian request “within five days.”
Mr. Sims has been at the center of controversy during much of his term as the top executive of Washington state’s largest county. A Virginia-based public watchdog group, Americans for Limited Government, has been urging members of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee to question Mr. Sims about the public-records case and other issues during his tenure.
“The least the Senate can do is to hold up Mr. Sims nomination so that members can get to the bottom of this controversy by asking more questions of the nominee - under penalty of perjury,” ALG President William Wilson said.
Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican and a member of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, also has raised questions concerning Mr. Sims’ involvement in the public records case.
“In response to my questions about this issue, Mr. Sims replied that he wasnt at liberty to comment on the subject,” Mr. Vitter said in a statement. The following day, however, he spoke in some detail about Qwest Field in a television interview.
“President Obama has pledged to ensure transparency in his administration, but Mr. Sims responses to me and to the TV crew just dont seem to be in keeping with that promise,” he said. “Court records clearly detail his involvement.”
Vitter spokesman Joel DiGrado said the senator has not put a hold on the nomination but was looking for his concerns to be addressed.
Mr. Yousoufian, during several telephone interviews, said he filed his initial request for documents in May 1997 when he heard Mr. Sims speak about a referendum election in which voters would decide whether to finance $300 million for a new stadium. The court records show Mr. Sims’ office failed to respond to 11 requests for information from Mr. Yousoufian over a two-year period, prompting him to file his lawsuit.
Mr. Yousoufian said he filed the document request because the Kingdome, where the Seahawks played at the time, was near his hotel, University Plaza. He said the stadium brought a lot of business to the hotel, and he wanted the economic-impact studies to determine how a new stadium might affect that business.
Seeking the documents under the state’s Public Disclosure Act, the request cited “outside studies” used by Mr. Sims and then-Washington Gov. Gary Locke, now Mr. Obama’s secretary of commerce, to lobby voters to support a bond to pay for the new stadium.
Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen offered to purchase the Seahawks if Washington state voters approved a public-financing measure to build Qwest Field. Voters approved a financing package in 1997, and the stadium was completed in 2002. A statewide special election to authorize construction passed with 50.8 percent of the vote.
Mr. Yousoufian said the outside studies supported less costly stadium alternatives that were withheld pending completion of a report that coincided with a construction proposal offered by Mr. Allen and supported by Mr. Sims.
According to Mr. Yousoufian and a review of court records:
• A firm known as CSL found that without a pro sports team in the Kingdome, the facility would carry a $650,000 annual operating loss, $5.2 million annually for earlier roof repairs and an estimated $3 million yearly in capital improvements needed to attract new events. But, it said, with professional football in the dome, it was estimated to operate at a profit ranging from $612,000 to $834,000 for the years 2000 to 2009.
• A report by HOK Sports Facilities Group said that remodeling the Kingdome would cost $197 million, and would add 500,000 square feet of space and better seating. The report also said the Seahawks playing in the dome added $76.2 million in economic activity to King County in 1995 alone, and created 1,388 jobs, 1,264 of which were in Seattle.
Qwest Field cost taxpayers $430 million and some critics, including Mr. Yousoufian, said that if the outside studies had been made public, voters might not have supported the bond measure for the new stadium.
“I’m just a little guy 2,500 miles away trying to shed a little light on this. I was surprised by the Sims nomination since I expected better,” Mr. Yousoufian said. “How this could have happened defies explanation.”
On April 1, King County appealed the Supreme Court ruling, asking for a rehearing on the grounds that Justice Sanders was prejudiced since he has a public-records lawsuit pending in another Washington state county. The county wants a temporary justice named to rule on the Yousoufian case, although it is not clear how that would change the outcome, because five other justices already have agreed.
Justice Sanders denied any wrongdoing, saying he consulted with the high court’s ethics attorney before hearing the Yousoufian case.