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Governor's office covers for high-level employees outed in affordable housing investigation

Governor Jay Inslee's office claimed KING 5's coverage lacked "fact-checking" after a KING 5 investigation found two high-level state employees own an affordable housing condo in Bellevue.

Top aides to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee haven’t cried “fake news” yet, but we can almost hear the words coming out of their mouths regarding a recent KING 5 story about high-level state employees who own an affordable housing condo in Bellevue.

Of course, this is not a case of “fake news,” and the efforts of the governor’s office to discredit our coverage shows why it is such an important story to begin with.

John Aultman and his wife, Nona Snell-Aultman, are not your average citizens. Aultman is the governor’s senior adviser on education policy. Snell-Aultman is deputy chief clerk of the Washington House of Representatives, and a former budget aide to Inslee.

RELATED: Washington lawmakers call for affordable housing changes after KING 5 Investigation

Inslee’s office went into “deny and defend” mode as soon as the governor’s staff learned of our pending story about the Aultmans and the ARCH unit they own in the tony McKee condominium complex in Bellevue.

In a series of emails to myself and KING newsroom management, Inslee aides criticized KING’s coverage as “innuendo” and lacking “fact-checking.”

“It’s hard for me to understand your coverage of this issue,” Chief of Staff David Postman wrote.

The vigorous response from the highest office in government is surprising, because the stories have more to do with the private lives of the Aultmans and whether they actually live in a Bellevue condo set aside for low- to moderate-income families (Our reporting shows that they have owned a waterfront home in Olympia since 2001).

RELATED: Olympia power couple’s second home is taxpayer funded

Of course, the Aultmans’ top tier positions in state government have been a marquee feature of KING 5’s stories. Why? Given affordable housing’s importance as an issue in Western Washington, we thought it appropriate to ask what the governor thought of two highly paid state workers owning a unit set aside for low- and moderate-income buyers.

We contacted the governor’s office expecting that it would not offer much of a comment, if any at all, on the Aultmans’ home ownership status. Instead, the governor’s aides attacked our story and made clear their belief that the Aultmans did nothing wrong in owning an ARCH unit.

“They have shared with you answers to your questions,” Deputy Communications Director Tara Lee said in an email the day before the story aired. “You have not provided proof that any state employee acted improperly in this situation,” she wrote.

However, the Aultmans have not clearly answered our key question: When did they move out of the Bellevue condo that they purchased through the ARCH affordable housing program? This matters, because when the Aultmans bought the unit in 2009, they signed a contract with ARCH saying the McKee unit would be their primary residence.

RELATED: Officials investigate Olympia power couple’s use of taxpayer-funded housing

ARCH questioned John Aultman after it learned of our investigation and said John Aultman “indicated that he did move out in 2017.”

Nona Snell-Aultman said in an October 16 email that the Bellevue condo “was John’s primary residence through the end of 2016.”

John Aultman went to work for Inslee’s office on January 1, 2016, and a governor’s spokesperson says the job requires him to “work about 50 percent of his time in the Olympia office.”

In addition, a 2015 speeding ticket from Pacific County shows John Aultman listing his Olympia address, and King County voting records from 2012 list his home address in Olympia as well.

In short, we don’t have a straight answer from the Aultmans – or the governor’s office – about when John Aultman gave up the Bellevue condo as his “primary residence.”

It is logical to conclude that for nearly three years (longer, if McKee residents are believed, who say the Aultmans rarely used the condo in nearly 10 years of ownership) the Aultmans lived in Olympia and failed to meet the “principal residence” requirement of the ARCH condo.

But that’s not proof enough for the governor’s staff.

“What am I missing here that suggests the Aultmans have ‘taken advantage of the program?’” their email asked us.

Inslee’s office is particularly upset that we approached Nona Snell-Aultman with the camera rolling as she left work earlier this month.

“So, on the topic of conduct, let me make clear my extreme unhappiness with yours. Many of your peers have discredited the method of ambush interviews,” wrote Jaime Smith, the governor’s communications director.

She cited two sources on journalistic ethics, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and a 2005 book on broadcast news, that said reporters should “generally respect a person’s refusal to be interviewed.”

However, she seems to gloss over one paragraph that she included in her email from the book Broadcast News: Writing, Reporting and Producing.

“…an ambush interview is justified only when there’s a genuine public accountability involved. Sometimes you cannot allow a person in public office to refuse to talk to you. You really have to get to the person and make him accountable,” the book read.

Nona Snell-Aultman is that person. She wrote affordable housing law as a legislative staff member in 2009 and 2010 and before that worked for the Washington State Housing Finance Commission. She currently makes $154,000 a year as the chief records keeper for the Washington House of Representatives.

The two other questionable condo owners featured in our stories got phone calls seeking comment before we approached them. Nona Snell-Aultman did not because we were worried that the powerful, influential people who surround her might shield her from our story. After we intercepted her in the capitol building parking lot one afternoon in early October, she had three weeks to provide additional information in advance of our story. She provided only sparse details in two emails.

The governor’s office took it from there. Its response after the fact told me that we made the right decision.

The governor’s office has put its weight behind the Aultmans’ denials and tried to insulate them from our coverage by acting as a go-between.

RELATED: Owner of Bellevue affordable housing unit forced to sell after years of rule violations

The governor’s staff has one complaint that does appear to hold some water. It disputes our characterization that the Aultmans’ Bellevue condo was taxpayer funded, per se.

ARCH agrees with them.

“It is important to clarify that the affordable units at the McKee were created through local land use requirements, and not through investment of taxpayer funds as reported by KING 5,” said an ARCH statement.

We’re seeking clarification on this from ARCH, but it appears to be emphasizing that the affordable housing plan used at the McKee did not take money out of Bellevue’s general fund or ARCH’s housing trust fund, but was instead accomplished through permit waivers and zoning changes granted so that the developer could make more profit.

In our interpretation, the McKee condos are protected by taxpayer-funded ARCH (which regulates ownership and controls the sale price, along with other administrative functions) and therefore is a taxpayer-supported program. Also, any fees waived during construction or other financial incentives came at an indirect cost to taxpayers.

Still, ARCH has made a strong point, and we may reconsider our use of “taxpayer funded” in reference to the Aultmans’ unit.

It’s easy to imagine that the governor’s office will discourage any attempts to repair the problems identified in our affordable housing stories (ARCH says its reviewing its policies and procedures).

It’s unfortunate that their voice will echo loudly through the corridors of power in Olympia.