A state agency paid people to attend its public meetings and paid extra for a specific type of attendee -- young African Americans.
A KING 5 investigation found that the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs paid recruiters to find people to attend certain events and that the pay varied depending on the attendee’s race. The compensation structure was $25 for each African American attendee under the age of 25, and $20 per person for all others.
"Does that have a place in state government? I don't think so," said state Rep. Sam Hunt (D-Olympia). “In this state we have a long record of equality and trying to treat everybody equally. And we’ve argued and legislated against preference for any reason. That would cause me to worry about this – we’re all in this together and we should all be treated equally.”
The payments were made when the commission was run by Rosalund Jenkins, who left the job at the end of 2011. Under Jenkins, the commission entered into contracts with people who recruited attendees. The recruiters were paid with money donated to the commission. The events included "advocacy training" sessions and an Ethnic Education Summit.
Jenkins declined a KING 5 request to appear on camera, but she said paying recruiters was a better alternative to paying for expensive advertising that weren’t garnering results. She also said the recruiters earned more for finding young African Americans because that population was under-represented in advocacy work, such as testifying on a bill.
“I offered $25 versus $20 to recruit young African Americans because this demographic was hardest to reach and least likely to engage in the legislative process covered in the training,” said Jenkins. “When you’re sitting on a commission such as this you’re in the race business. I can understand that it looks odd.”
In some cases, the recruiters wound up recruiting themselves. KING 5 found a check to Keith Blocker who was paid to find attendees for a commission training event. He was listed as the only person he recruited. In the available records the reporters found three other recruiters who were paid to recruit themselves.
"The first question is, 'If we have to pay people to go, how important is it?'" said Hunt, who chairs the House committee that oversees ethics in state government.
Ethics experts told KING 5 that even though the commission used donations to pay attendees, the money was still a state resource -- solicited by the agency on official letterhead. As such, the commission couldn't spend the funds however it wanted.
Jenkins said she disagreed, emphasizing that taxpayer money was not involved.
“These were not state resources. We couldn’t use tax dollars because most of the things we did were outside of the state spending rules,” said Jenkins. “I am proud of the work I did at the commission, including culturally responsive outreach to the community in general and to young African Americans in particular.”
Paying to fill the commission's meetings wasn't the only questionable use of state resources found by KING 5. Records show that Jenkins solicited donations to the commission and channeled the money through a separate non-profit, the Northwest Institute for Leadership Change. Under this arrangement, state regulators were not able to monitor the spending.
Jenkins said that at the time she was given the okay to use the non-profit as a pass through for donations by the Office of the Attorney General. An assistant attorney general wrote the contract that provided for the unusual financial arrangement. KING 5 asked the Attorney General’s Office why one of their attorneys wrote the contract but the reporters never received a response.
Bailey Stober, the commission's current executive assistant, said such practices are now a thing of the past.
"So I was upset that somebody that used to work here could violate the public's trust so much and overshadow some of the positive things we're doing here," Stober said.
Hunt said there's an obvious lesson for all state government workers: "One of the questions I try to ask is: 'If I do this, will it wind up in the news?' And if they'd asked that question they might have saved a lot of trouble and saved you a story."
“I didn’t try to hide anything, I didn’t abuse anything. I was simply trying to get things done with the limited resources we had at the commission. What the donors wanted were people at the table who hadn’t been there before. I was innovative and got results,” said Jenkins.