State Rep. Cindy Ryu’s lease for her district office in Shoreline may become an issue in the race to replace King County Councilman Bob Ferguson.
A Democrat from Shoreline, Ryu is one of five finalists recommended for the job by a citizen panel created by County Executive Dow Constantine. From those five, Constantine will forward three names to the Metropolitan King County Council, which then will select one to serve the rest of Ferguson’s District 1 term this year. Ferguson was elected state attorney general in November.
Ryu’s district office has drawn attention because she leases the space from her husband, Cody Ryu. They own the Aurora Avenue plaza where her office is located. The plaza has an assessed value of $3.9 million, according to county records.
Ryu maintains the lease is legal and ethical and has been vetted by House of Representatives counsel Tim Sekerak. “He was fine with it,” Ryu said.
House rules don’t explicitly prohibit such an arrangement, said Sekerak. A closer analysis – which he doesn’t do – would be required to determine if the deal personally benefited or enriched Ryu, which would make the lease illegal and unethical. That determination would be made by Legislative Ethics Board if it received a formal complaint, said board counsel Mike O’Connell. The board hasn’t received a complaint yet.
State law says no state official “may be beneficially interested, directly or indirectly” in a contract or lease they’ve signed.
The situation is complicated by several factors, though. Ryu’s lease initially had her paying $1 rent and $520 each month to cover building costs such as heating, lighting, taxes and more. Another lawmaker, Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Shoreline, has moved into the space and the lease calls for each lawmaker to pay $140 in rent and $260 for building costs each month. House members receive a stipend up to $6,200 per year to cover expenses including district offices.
Ryu said taxpayers are getting a good deal because the lease amounts to cut-rate rent and additional “pass-through” building costs. “I’m actually not benefiting myself,” Ryu said. “I am not enriching myself.”
But she acknowledged there were vacancies in the plaza at the time she leased office space, and receiving some rent was better was none. “You could say that,” she said.
O’Connell said the ethics board hasn’t addressed a case with the same facts before.
“Maybe there is an argument that you’re saving the state money,” he said. “But does that trump the rule that you can’t enrich yourself?”
If he had been asked to advise someone in Ryu’s situation, O’Connell said he would point to what’s legal and what’s politically smart.
“I guess I’d tell that person, ‘Let me draft the lease so neither you or your spouse are benefitting.’ I’d really want it spelled out,” he said. “That’s not to say she did anything wrong, but we’d walk the legislator through the questions.”
A supporter of Rod Dembowski, another of the five finalists, requested a copy of Ryu’s lease from the House.
Dembowski, a Seattle lawyer, said he’s not filed a complaint or sent the lease to anyone else at this point. Dembowski said Wednesday he had not even looked closely at it yet.
“We had heard rumblings about it, and rather than rely on rumors,” Dembowski said he wanted to see it himself.
“I don’t know if any law has been violated,” he said. “The reason we asked for it is because people are talking about it.”
The other finalists are Shoreline City Council member Will Hall, Shoreline Planning Commission member Keith Scully, and King County Deputy Ombudsman Chuck Sloane.