April 10, 2009

HUD nominee no friend of transparency

Despite President Obama's pledge of making government transparent, his nominee for Deputy Secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development is no friend to the open government movement.

As King County Executive in Washington State, there were numerous controversies where Ron Sims tried to prevent transparency when citizens sought information from the local government:

Ask Stefan Sharkansky. A Seattle blogger and citizen activist, Sharkansky blew the whistle on election fraud shenanigans involving Sims’ office during the November 2004 gubernatorial election. He has fought since December 2004 to obtain public records related to gross errors in the county’s ballot-counting.

“What we’ve seen is not just a lazy agency dragging its heels to respond to document requests, but an organized effort to cover-up official misconduct and to obstruct justice,” Sharkansky stated in his suit.

But there is more. Armen Yousoufian, a former Boeing engineer, has been battling with Sims for 12 years to force him to obey public disclosure laws.

Yousoufian wanted access to government documents related to a sports stadium subsidy plan up for a vote in Washington in the summer of 1997. The records he requested at the end of May 1997 pertained to the fiscal impact of a massive tax-hike proposal to build a new football palace for the Seattle Seahawks. Time was of the essence: County residents were preparing to vote on a ballot initiative package worth $300 million on June 17, 1997. Boosters of similar “public-private stadium partnerships” had made dubious claims of economic windfalls that never transpired. Yousoufian – serving as the watchdog that Sims failed to be for his constituents — was absolutely right to question the numbers.

Yousoufian went to the courts to hold Sims accountable. He has spent $330,000 of his own money and spent 4,000 hours of his own time challenging Sims.

A lower court ruled in his favor, dinging the county’s obstructionism as “egregious,” but skimped in awarding him the minimum $5 a day for each of the 8,252 days that Sims’ office withheld the documents. The courts found “hundreds” of instances where Sims’ office deceived Yousoufian or refused to tell the truth. To deter future abuse, Yousoufian appealed for higher fines.

Is this the transparency Obama was talking about? Others seem to have a different — and more favorable — opinion of Sims. While he may of done some worthwhile things in some areas, his consistent disregard of transparency during his tenure in Washington may give Senators a reason to delay or deny his appointment.