Collaboration in Civic Spheres

WA adjusts ethics rules for horse racing commission workers

by September 20th, 2012

The Washington State Horse Racing Commission will take a more direct role in regulating potential conflicts of interest for its employees working in the off-season for the horse racing industry they help regulate – at the Emerald Downs track in Auburn – with rules changes that were approved last week by the state’s Executive Ethics Board. One key change replaces a relatively complicated process for getting ethical clearance of off-season work with a more streamlined approach. Another major tweak was removing loopholes for accepting from industry representatives any gratuities or gifts such as meals, beverages, merchandise, special discounts, loans, or special free admission offers to events. Additionally, the new rules remove a loophole permitting commission employees the possibility of conducting outside business while on duty.

The commission oversees professional horse racing in Washington State under state law chapter (RCW) 67.16. The primary venue in the state is the Emerald Downs track in Auburn, south of Seattle, where the thoroughbreds run and wagers are placed from mid-April through late September each year. A high proportion of the commission’s employees make very low salaries based on part-time work, as shown in public records of their salaries from the State Office of Financial Management via a Spokane Spokesman-Review database.

The commission wanted to tighten ethics rules but also make it less cumbersome for employees to seek off-season work including positions in the horse-racing industry. The updated HRC ethics rules approved in the form of a “special directive” by the state ethics board at its regular meeting Friday September 14 resulted from changes shown in a working draft developed by the commission and ethics board staff. (“Strike-through” text indicates language deleted; underlined text are new provisions).

Previously, commission employees operated in the off-season under a looming but vague threat of retroactive discipline under the state’s Ethics in Public Service Act if they accepted a position in the industry without undergoing a somewhat cumbersome pre-approval process. The employee was required to first get written permission from the state ethics board with assistance as needed from the horse racing commission. Under the newly adopted changes, commission employees will submit an off-season work request directly to the commission’s executive secretary, who will decide each request on a case-by-case basis. Not submitting the requests before taking off-season work in the industry can be grounds for discipline, up to and including dismissal.

In contrast, the new changes erase any possibility of commission workers accepting tips or gifts from industry representatives, or doing outside work while on duty. Both previously had been allowed, with permission, respectively, from the commission’s Executive Secretary or a supervisor.

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