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Internal investigation: WSDOT economist’s claims he was forced out not substantiated

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(The Center Square) – An investigation by a law firm on behalf of the Washington State Department of Transportation found no merit to most of a former employee’s claims he was pressured to lie about the impact of the Climate Commitment Act on gas prices – and forced out of his job because of it.

Scott Smith, a former economist with WSDOT, claims he faced hostility and retaliation after refusing to keep quiet about his calculations last year showing Washington’s cap-and-trade program under the CCA, which went into effect last year, would increase gas prices by 45 to 50 cents per gallon.

In March, Smith filed a lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court claiming he was pressured by the governor’s Office of Financial Management and WSDOT to change the numbers in his reports indicating the state’s climate change laws were significantly impacting fuel prices.

“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 during a March virtual press conference. “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.”

The law firm Ogden Murphy Wallace completed an investigation into those allegations for WSDOT in April.

The 91-page report’s executive summary said in part that “Smith’s perceptions of events as set forth in the Demand Letter are significantly different in many respects from the descriptions of events provided by the witnesses who were interviewed.”

The executive summary concluded, “Therefore, no violations of the applicable policies were substantiated based on the information reviewed for this investigation. However, some of the individuals who were requested to be interviewed declined to do so, and it is unknown whether any information they could have provided would have changed any of the findings or conclusions in this investigation.”

One of the report’s major findings is that, “There is a preponderance of evidence that Smith misunderstood” his supervisor’s Jan. 18, 2023, request not to change forecast assumptions in his quarterly fuel tax revenue forecast.

The report notes that changes to forecast assumptions are not typically made unilaterally by one forecaster and that “the Office of Financial Management carries out its forecast responsibilities for transportation revenues through the Transportation Revenue Forecast Council.”

Smith said he was punished for not going along with fudging the numbers, including being refused basic software upgrades, being denied time off to visit his elderly mother in Florida, and having his job eliminated through House Bill 1838, which the Legislature passed last year.

Smith quit his job in early November.

Jackson Maynard, Citizen Action Defense Fund executive director, is Smith’s attorney.

“What is very encouraging about the report is that in many places it corroborates and is consistent with our client’s account of events,” Maynard emailed The Center Square.

He went on to note that “WSDOT’s witnesses provide evidence that … there were acts of retaliation, including a reduction in his scope of work, failure to approve his leave, and the passage of a bill supported by OFM that eliminated his position.”

Maynard admitted “we are disappointed and strongly disagree with [the report’s] conclusion,” but he did find a silver lining.

“We look forward to the discovery process which we anticipate will further vindicate claims,” he concluded.

The office of Gov. Jay Inslee expressed satisfaction with the results of the report.

“We take allegations like these seriously, which is why WSDOT pursued this independent investigation,” Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk emailed The Center Square. “We’re pleased, but not surprised, to see the findings did not support the claims made and that staff acted appropriately.”

Washington’s carbon auctions, quarterly events where carbon allowances are sold to large emitters of greenhouse gases, have raised more than $2 billion so far.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, gas prices in Washington in the last year have been as low as $3.70 per gallon on Jan. 2, 2023, and as high as $4.99 per gallon on Oct. 2, 2023.

An initiative to repeal the CCA will appear on the ballot this November.