The Kampuchean Lobbyist

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

State Senator Doug Ericksen is once again pushing the envelope of legislative integrity by signing a $500,000-per-year contract to lobby state and federal lawmakers on behalf of the Cambodian government. This is the Southeast Asian country whose sham elections he observed last July and slavishly declared “legitimate and fair” despite the main opposition party being largely banned from participation.

Cambodia’s brutal dictator Hun Sen, formerly a member of the bloodthirsty Pol Pot regime that murdered more than a million of its people during the 1970s, has maintained an iron grip on that nation’s government since 1985 by outlawing, exiling, incarcerating or killing any significant opponents. Now Ericksen and his partner Jay Rodne will rake in half a million dollars a year to continue trying to polish the heavily tarnished image of Cambodia’s authoritarian leadership.

This amount is more than Ericksen has been getting paid for a decade’s worth of activity as a state senator—that is, if you ignore all the lobbyist-paid meals, self-serving uses of surplus campaign funds, and per-diem payments he has accepted during those years. Maybe it’s a payoff from Sen for his service last year as an election “observer.”

David Hutt, a Cambodia-based journalist for Asia Times, noted in an article titled “Cambodia and the half-million-dollar question” that the United States has strict laws against federal lawmakers accepting payments from abroad. This policy was enshrined in the “emoluments clause” of the Constitution, but it may not apply to state legislators.

Apparently Ericksen is exploiting yet another loophole in Washington state law, which lacks strict ethics laws prohibiting public officials from accepting such foreign inducements while in office. But the possible conflicts of interest are obvious. In any issue involving foreign trade, for example, will he represent the interests of Cambodia or of the citizens of Whatcom County—who reelected him by a razor-thin margin last November?

The recent Senate Bill 5033 would have prohibited retiring state legislators from lobbying for one year. But even if it had passed the legislature, which it didn’t, the bill said little to nothing about lobbying while they are in office.

By contrast, the North Dakota legislature recently adopted a measure that amended the state constitution and contains provisions about lobbying and conflicts of interest. It includes language that prohibits elected officials from working as lobbyists while holding office, or for two years afterward.

Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonprofit watchdog group Democracy 21, stated in a U.S. World News article that “I find it highly unusual for a country to hire a state senator to be a lobbyist.” Typically, foreign governments hire K Street firms in Washington, DC, to represent their interests.

In an article in Consortium News titled “The Open Secret of Foreign Lobbying,” Johnathan Marshal reported that the growth of foreign lobbying has serious implications. For example, Senator William Fulbright conducted an official probe in 1963 of foreign lobbying under the auspices of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It uncovered evidence that lobbyists for sugar-producing Caribbean nations encouraged purchase of their exports at above-market prices, which allowed rapacious dictators like Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic to pocket millions.

It remains to be seen just how far Ericksen will try to bend the rules to enrich his patron Hun Sen and cronies, but his track record is far from encouraging. One likely area of activity would be to try to help Cambodia avoid possible sanctions.

An honorable man would resign from the Legislature upon contracting to lobby on behalf of a foreign government—especially one such as Cambodia’s. But “Double-dipping Doug” showed he is not an honorable man when he remained in office during the 2017 legislative session while taking in added payments of more than $40,000 for a 120-day stint with the president’s beachhead team at the Environmental Protection Agency.

As David Hutt observed, “Some called Ericksen’s acceptance of the money unethical and perhaps even illegal.” And he cited Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, who tweeted, “Washington State Senator Doug Ericksen is precisely what ‘pay-to-play,’ dictatorship-supporting scumbags look like.”

But Sen. Ericksen is unfortunately still our scumbag, thanks to the 2018 elections. Once again, he puts Whatcom County on the map, in the most disgusting light possible. 

Physicist and author Michael Riordan writes about science, technology and public policy from Orcas Island. Before becoming a citizen journalist, Elisabeth Britt worked in Olympia as a legislative aide.

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