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Former WSDOT economist sues, speaks out over gas price whistleblowing claims

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(The Center Square) – Scott Smith, a former economist with the Washington State Department of Transportation, spoke out Wednesday morning about the hostility and retaliation he says he faced after refusing to keep quiet about his calculations last year showing Washington’s cap-and-trade program would increase gas prices by 45 to 50 cents per gallon.

“When I was preparing the estimates, the facts were so obvious that it was a matter of sixth-grade math,” he said during a virtual news conference the day after the Citizen Action Defense Fund filed a lawsuit on his behalf.

The lawsuit targets WSDOT, the Office of Financial Management and the administration of Gov. Jay Inslee.

“On Jan. 18, 2023, I was told in a meeting with my direct supervisor that management would quote, prefer, unquote, that I not include cap-and-trade surcharges in my quarterly fuel forecast,” Smith said. “I refused to do so despite their repeated attempts to get me to jimmy the numbers in my work. After that, I was punished for doing the right thing.”

That punishment, according to Smith, ranged from being refused basic software upgrades to being denied time off to visit his elderly mother to having his job eliminated through House Bill 1838 passed by the Legislature last year.

Smith said he and several coworkers were instructed not to reference cap-and-trade surcharges in order to evade public discovery and Freedom of Information Act issues.

“We were specifically told that by our superiors,” he reiterated.

Smith’s attorney is Jackson Maynard, CADF executive director. He said his client was stating the obvious despite Inslee’s previous prediction that any increase in the price at the pump would be only “pennies.”

“So my client was saying what everybody knew,” Maynard stated. “It was the worst kept secret in Olympia that this program would have an impact on gas. That was the purpose of the program. That’s why proponents liked it, and yet after he included those cost impacts in his estimates, he was pressured to change them, consistent with what the governor was saying, and he refused to do it, and that’s why we’re filing suit.”

In December, CADF filed a tort claim form and sent a demand letter formally notifying the state of Smith’s claim. The state has so far refused to pay the claim or present a counteroffer, CADF said in a news release, and the 60-day statutory period has elapsed, so filing the lawsuit is the next step in the process.

“The basic allegations are the same as our demand letter last November that Mr. Smith was pressured to lie about the impact of the cap-and-trade program on gas prices when preparing his fuel cost estimates for a report in March of last year,” Maynard explained.

The situation has taken its toll on Smith.

He quit his job in early November and “since then I’ve spent time recovering from all this by staying with relatives, especially my only daughter. I’ve applied for other jobs, but I am 64 years old, so now even though I’m more qualified for the positions that I apply for, I haven’t gotten one call back. I am mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted from all this.”

Ironically, Smith is a proponent of cap-and-trade.

“I should note that I support cap-and-trade programs personally, because I think it is an effective way to reduce carbon emissions by increasing the cost of fuel and thereby decreasing demand,” he said. “This is not controversial in other states with similar policies such as California.”

Maynard said the state has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit and 40 days to respond to a motion for discovery.

“In conclusion, we are proud to fight for Scott and all other state employees like him who want to do their jobs without being bullied for political reasons,” he said. “We gave the state a chance to do the right thing here without the need for litigation, and they declined. We look forward to the discovery process and proving Mr. Smith’s claims in court.”

The Center Square reached out to the Governor’s Office for comment on the lawsuit.

“WSDOT’s personnel investigation is still pending, and at this point we don’t have any additional information or comments beyond what we’ve previously shared,” Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk emailed The Center Square.

“I think the only new allegation they’ve raised is in regards to HB 1838, so I would note that House Bill 1838 had bipartisan sponsorship and was approved unanimously by the Legislature,” he added. “The governor’s bill signing remarks from last year plainly state why it was passed.”

At the time, Inslee said, “HB 1838 moves transportation revenue forecasting to the Economic and Revenue Forecast Council. This will improve coordination and consistency in forecasting this important revenue source.”