Seattle is being run by criminals–or so the city Ethics and Elections Commission claims. Of course we’ve always suspected this was true, but the details are juicy, and the question of what to do about it is an important one, because if we let the criminal element get away with it, the pillaging of public coffers will never end. And it has to stop somewhere, sometime.
What I’m referring to, of course, is the report released last week by the Ethics and Elections Commission on the $73 million dollar give-away to Pine Street Development for the Nordstrom parking garage currently under construction at Sixth and Pine. The facility itself will only cost an estimated $50 million to build, so $23 million of that money is an outright gift to Pine Street Development. The city council and members of the Rice administration broke not just city laws, but also state and federal laws in setting up and approving this deal, particularly the federal Constitutional ban against gifts to private businesses. We’re not talking about whether or not it was a wise business decision for the mayor’s office or the city council to approve this scam–the facts are the facts. The city council and the mayor’s office broke the law, and should be held accountable for it.
It’s interesting to note that damage control began the day after the report was issued. City Attorney Mark Sidran, whose office advised the city council on the legalities of the deal, has denied that there was any wrongdoing involved, thereby showing either extreme incompetence, or a frightening propensity to interpret and manipulate the law to benefit himself and the business community that supported his election to office. His department advised the city council that it was okay not to hold public hearings on the deal, which is against state law.
The four current city council members who were in office at the time the project was approved (1995-96) are Sue Donaldson, Martha Choe, Jan Drago, and Margaret Pageler. Donaldson, in particular, has been vocal in defending the secretive way that the council reviewed and hastily approved the project. If it hadn’t been done immediately, it wouldn’t have been done at all, she reasons; and just look at all the development along Pine Street, which was a direct result of Nordstrom deciding to stay in downtown Seattle (which they wouldn’t have done if we didn’t give them a free parking garage).
That’s lame. Sorry, Sue, but many of us think it’s better that taxpayers not pay for Nordstrom’s parking garage. And the garage has nothing at all to do with the butt-ugly Nike temple, gaudy Gameworks bordello, and 20-screen cinema complex (modeled after Wall Street’s “Big Board” stock listings) that opened up down the street. These were all under construction before the garage deal was clinched. Let’s talk about what really might have been if these soulless playpens had decided not to move into downtown. Those of us who live in the neighborhood might have been pleased to see even half of that $73 million put into turning the Frederick & Nelson building into low-income housing or a spacious, long-term, downtown library–or seeing the long-needed hygiene center finally get the space it deserves and desperately needs.
Critics who are following the ins and outs of the garage scandal are looking for ways to keep this type of crime from happening again. One option is to demand the resignation of council members Donaldson, Drago, Choe, and Pageler–and the resignation of Mark Sidran, too. At least one current council member, Nick Licata, has suggested that the city back out of the deal altogether and refuse to pay Pine Street Developers the $73 million.
Another option that should be pursued is the filing of criminal charges against John Finke and the organization he works for, the National Development Council, a nonprofit consulting firm that contracted with the city to arrange financing for the garage deal. NDC’s contract with the city forbade it from having any financial interest in the deal, yet the firm stands to make half million dollars on the garage deal. Here’s how: while NDC was working for the city in 1996, an NDC subsidiary signed a separate contract with Pine Street Development to assume ownership of the garage while under construction. After completion of the garage, NDC will turn the profits (that extra $23 million) over to Pine Street Development, who will then reward NDC a total of $500,000 for their efforts in brokering the deal. The city was ripped off, pure and simple, and we should go after the thieves now, before they skip town and find another lucrative project to exploit somewhere else.
Furthermore, Pine Street Development should be barred from working on city contracts, and the lawyers from Preston Gates & Ellis that represented several different parties in the scheme (a clear conflict of interest) should be heavily fined or disbarred. Furthermore, it’s high time Nordstrom paid its own way in this town (just like you and I have to). If they can’t deal with it, they can move to the suburbs. Enough is enough.