A continuing KING 5 investigation into Washington State Ferries, the largest ferry system in the country, reveals that several years ago, a group of ferry employees actually asked their bosses to cut a lucrative travel benefit that has cost the state millions of dollars.
Our investigation traces back to an unusual and mysterious letter written in 2004. To date no one can find a signed copy of it, but it outlines what some ferry workers thought was an unfair perk going to a group of fellow employees.
Two weeks ago the KING 5 Investigators exposed what that letter addressed: that a group of ferry employees were getting paid to drive to and from the exact same office, every day, year after year, because their job was classified as a "special project."
Bill Hughes is one of about 40 ferry employees on a special project at any given time. His project is to develop radar technology and training programs. Hughes is considered one of the best radar experts in the country and an extremely hard worker. His special project has been underway for 15 years. Since 1995 the state has paid him to travel to and from his home base in Bremerton day in and day out. KING 5 estimates that’s added roughly $450,000 to his salary over the years.
Senator Don Benton sits on the Senate Transportation Committee, which had no idea the state was paying out these travel dollars for nearly 30 years.
"It’s crazy. To me that's appalling. That's unacceptable. That's what's wrong with government," said Sen. Benton, a Republican from Vancouver.
Since airing the story, KING 5 has obtained a letter, written six years ago. It asks the ferry system to "cease and desist" paying travel time and mileage to those on special projects, because it's "not supported" in the union contract.
Guess who wrote it? An unlikely source: The Masters Mates and Pilots union (MMP).
MMP represents most of the special project employees.
Retired ferry Captain Steve Brickley was part of the union leadership team which met with ferry bosses in 2004 to do something unheard of in the world of unions: to ask that a benefit be taken away from their members because it wasn't in their contract.
"It’s not in the contract, to me, there was no area of gray there. If you read the contracts, black and white - not there," said Brickley.
He says asking management to take away a benefit was not an easy thing to do.
"It is an uncomfortable thing to go after your own membership who are getting something that management's chosen to give to them and to try to approach them and say this isn't right, we think you should pull back on this somehow, or we need to fix this," said Brickley.
Many people would assume the state would jump at the opportunity to slash thousands from the budget. That didn’t happen. The three union leaders in that meeting tell KING 5 the ferry director at the time declined the offer. According to the union Delegate Committee members, the director said they would keep paying the benefit because it had been going on for years and he was afraid the valuable special project employees might quit if the money were suddenly taken away.
"They basically said they were comfortable with what was going on and they didn't see any reason to change it," said Brickley.
Former State Ferries CEO Mike Anderson remembers events differently. He’s now retired from state service, but was the top ferry administrator in the 2004 meeting. Anderson says he never saw a letter from the union formally asking to end the practice. KING 5 was unable to verify if it was ever sent.
He does remember Captain Brickley and other union delegates asking him to cut the perk.
"I never received or saw that letter. I remember discussing the issue with the union delegates, but they didn't represent their entire committee. If the union wanted to put it on the table in a formal way, we would have dealt with the issue. They didn't do that," said Anderson.
Later Anderson wrote KING 5 an e-mail, adding: "Doesn't it just sound a little absurd that I would have turned down an offer for a cost savings opportunity?"
Whether the letter was presented or not, it’s clear the decision was made to continue the payments.
By analyzing available public records the KING 5 Investigators estimate the state has spent roughly $1.8 million on this travel benefit over the last six years; since the union members called that meeting.
"Good for them (MMP) for bringing it to their attention and shame on the (Ferries) department for ignoring it, for continuing this practice. This is not the kind of responsible behavior citizens want from their government," said Sen. Benton. "We need to put people in charge of our organizations of government that look at the money that they’re spending as though it was their own money. That’s what the citizens want."
The current ferry boss, David Moseley, whose been on the job for two years, didn't know about the years-long special project travel pay until KING 5 started asking questions.
Just ten days after we interviewed him about it, he put a stop to it because the benefit was not called for in the contract. The current Branch Agent of the local MMP, Capt. Tim Saffle, agreed that practice was not supported in their bargaining agreement.
The special projects employees will continue to receive travel time and mileage pay through the end of June.