Does Todd Mielke understand conflict of interest?
Does he understand and value the proposition that elected officials should operate on behalf of the public and not their personal interests? And, crucially, does he value the fact that in the realm of ethics, appearances matter nearly as much as actions?
He says he does. Mielke, the Republican county commissioner who is seeking re-election, has insisted, for example, that his continued participation in decisions that affect his romantic partner is not a conflict of interest.
Mielke and Spokane County District Court Judge Debra Hayes are in a relationship; Hayes oversees the county’s mental health treatment court. The County Commission has recently investigated alternatives regarding the funding split between mental health court and drug court, commissioning studies, debating funding, and deciding how to allocate money and resources between the courts. Mielke has participated all along, though there is nothing at first blush that suggests he’s rigged anything concrete in favor of Hayes.
A few weeks ago, I asked him about it, and he offered some reasons that he does not consider it a conflict. Hayes is elected separately, for one thing, and he is not her supervisor. The county legal team has studied it and decided it does not constitute a conflict of interest, because his decisions don’t involve direct personal gain, he said.
OK. Seems to me that a person seeking to make it clear that he is not playing favorites might simply recuse himself. Just to remove all doubt. But OK.
What about asking someone for a campaign donation, after they’ve approached you to seek your help as a commissioner? Clearly that’s a no-no, no?
Mielke says no.
In February, Mielke met with developer Lanzce Douglass to discuss concerns over the settlement of a lawsuit involving Douglass and two of his siblings, who are partners in a development firm. The county settled the lawsuit, which has become a legal battle among the siblings; in the course of pursuing the case, Lanzce Douglass uncovered evidence of alleged fraud that has become the focus of a criminal investigation.
Lanzce Douglass has also pushed the county, so far unsuccessfully, to reopen the settlement. That was the subject of his conversation with Mielke in February. At the end of it, Mielke asked Douglass for a campaign contribution.
How on earth could such a thing be considered proper?
Here’s what Mielke says:
He met with Douglass over the course of two and a half hours. They discussed several topics, including the lawsuit, Douglass’s business, his interest in possibly purchasing a piece of county land, the county’s comprehensive plan – and, finally, his campaign.
Mielke says Douglass asked how it was going. Mielke told him, “You never supported me in the past and I’d like for you to consider supporting me this time.” After some more conversation, Mielke says, Douglass asked, “ ‘How can I help you?’ ”
Mielke says he then told him he could make a donation, and he gave him two of his preprinted campaign envelopes. Mielke denies that he gave Douglass a state GOP envelope and suggested directing a donation to his campaign, as Douglass has alleged; in fact, Mielke says he told Douglass that would be improper.
Mielke says there was no connection between his request for money and Douglass seeking help on the settlement. No quid pro quo. He said he made it clear that he and the county’s staff did not agree with Douglass that the county should toss out the settlement and start over.
The only problem – and it’s a doozy – is this: Douglass denies just about everything Mielke says.
He says he and Mielke talked about just two subjects – Douglass’s concerns over the lawsuit and Mielke’s request for a campaign donation.
“Those were the only two topics of the conversation,” he said. “At some point, when you only have two topics, they touch each other.”
Douglass says Mielke brought up the campaign first.
“We did talk about his campaign, yes, but I wasn’t the one who brought it up,” Douglass said.
“I thought it was inappropriate, but it didn’t surprise me,” he said. “All politicians want to talk about their campaigns and talk about donations. … Any time you talk to a politician who is in campaign season, it’s about guaranteed they’re going to hit you up for money.”
Virtually everything that occurred in that room is in dispute. Who said what. Who said what first. How many things were said. What envelopes were handed out. Which underhanded political motivation, of which there might be several, to attribute to which person. Citizens are left to guess and wonder, and an elected official should understand that no amount of explanation can wash away the impression here.
This was not a close call; Mielke’s failure to recognize that suggests a larger problem. It makes you wonder how often and in what ways his work as a commissioner crosses over with his work as a campaign fundraiser.
Mielke says his memory of the meeting differs from Douglass’s. That is one way to put it. Another is this: Someone is telling the truth, and voters are left to guess who. It should not surprise Mielke that not everyone will guess it’s him.
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.