Hilary Franz's Department of Natural Resources work prioritized political gain, some staffers say


As Hilary Franz campaigns for a seat in Congress, she points to her nearly eight years as state public lands commissioner, boasting of "epic" progress on improving forest health and preventing wildfires.

In a recent campaign fundraising plea, she touted "a proven track record" of "groundbreaking" wins at the Department of Natural Resources, which manages nearly 6 million acres of forests, beaches and other public lands.

But some who have worked under Franz tell another story about her leadership.

Fifteen current and former DNR employees described in interviews with The Seattle Times how Franz aggressively used the agency to burnish her image to run for higher office — first for governor and now for Congress — in ways that some say blurred lines governing the use of public resources for political purposes.

The current and former employees, including women and men who have worked as senior aides and managers, said they were pressured to organize official events driven by Franz's campaign needs and to help her secure political endorsements.

Her chief of staff, Carlo Davis, brought up Franz's plans to run for higher office with candidates for jobs at the agency and encouraged subordinates to attend her fundraisers, according to interviews and an email obtained by The Times.

A former DNR communications director got a severance payout conditioned on her signing a nondisparagement agreement, after pushing back, she said, on what she saw as inappropriate politics-oriented requests.

Franz defends her leadership and denies breaking any rules or managing DNR out of concern for her electoral ambitions. "Everything I have done coming in was about lifting up the work of this agency," she said.

The picture of a politician using their position to build a résumé for higher office is not unique. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, for example, has bragged about his dozens of lawsuits against former President Donald Trump's administration as he runs for governor.

However, the array of state workers coming forward to object to Franz's management is unusual in Olympia, where the risk of professional consequences for speaking out against powerful officials usually keeps people quiet.

Most of the current and former DNR employees spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fears of retaliation because they still work in government or at political jobs. Some agreed to be quoted by name, including one current DNR manager.

"I cannot in good faith know what I know and let it slide," said Carlos Lugo, external affairs manager for DNR's environmental justice office. "I am disgusted by what is going on."

A former senior DNR communications staffer, who has worked with other elected officials, said: "I am not someone who views politics as dirty. I think the desire to win a higher office can be a great thing when elected officials are motivated to do good work and earn credit for it."

But Franz, the person said, presided over an office "where it was made clear that good public policy was a secondary concern to her political aspirations."

A current DNR staffer said the situation worsened in early 2023 as Franz geared up to run for governor, describing a "blurring of the lines between what we are doing as state employees and taxpayer-funded campaign acolytes."

Franz rejected such characterizations and defended her record in a recent interview, saying she's been careful to follow state ethics laws, and insisted on training for her staff to do the same.

"I think if you look at my record and how I've operated and my investment, massive investment in policy, and setting big goals ... I think it speaks for itself," she said.

Since she took office, Franz noted DNR's budget has grown by nearly 60%, and she pointed to a slew of accomplishments, including $500 million that she worked to convince the Legislature to earmark to combat and prevent wildfires.

Joe Smillie, a DNR spokesperson, said in an email that the allegations made by Franz's critics should be taken "with a grain of salt."

Smillie, who has worked at the agency for a decade, said Franz worked to make DNR more responsive to community feedback, sometimes over internal objections.

"This all was definitely a culture change from prior Commissioners. And not everyone at the agency may agree with it. That's fair. But what isn't fair — and also isn't true — is folks making a huge leap and claiming that therefore there is something inappropriate in how the agency is run," Smillie wrote.

The behind-the-scenes battle over Franz's reputation has spilled into the heated primary in the 6th Congressional District, where she's competing with state Sens. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, and Drew MacEwen, R-Shelton.

Some former DNR employees have detailed their concerns about Franz to groups considering endorsements in the race. Meanwhile, the two unions representing DNR employees recently snubbed their boss and endorsed Randall.

The Washington Public Employees Association, which represents 750 DNR employees, including wildland firefighters, "made the mistake" of endorsing Franz previously, its president said in an interview, citing concerns over worker morale and safety.

Elected as lands commissioner in 2016, Franz had publicly weighed running for governor in 2020, but like other Democrats stood aside once Gov. Jay Inslee decided to run for a third term.

Last May, after Inslee said he would not seek a fourth term, Franz announced she'd run for governor this year. Trailing in polls and fundraising, she dropped her gubernatorial bid in November and switched to running for Congress after incumbent U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, surprised many by announcing his retirement. Kilmer endorsed Franz to succeed him.

Franz blamed the criticisms circulating about her on a "very ugly" primary election contest. She said one former DNR employee told her of receiving a text message from a "burner" phone asking them to share any "bad stuff" about her.

But several of the current and former employees first reached out to The Times last year before Franz's congressional race, when she was preparing to run for governor. The Times did not connect with any of the current or former DNR employees through the campaigns of Franz's opponents.

"All about Hilary"

One night in April, Lugo got a personal call from Franz, asking him for help with the endorsement of the Pierce County Democrats.

Lugo, who volunteered for the Democratic group's endorsement committee, said he told his boss he was recusing himself from making a recommendation in the race because he works at DNR. Franz had never called him about his official work at the agency, he said.

Franz, he said, urged him to stay involved in the endorsement and brought up a letter of recommendation she'd signed for him when he applied in 2022 to fill a vacancy on the Tacoma City Council. "She badgered me," he said.

Franz, in the interview, denied that she meant to pressure Lugo, saying she'd been trying to get in touch with others with questions about the endorsement process.

The Pierce County Democrats endorsed Randall.

Lugo says he had already been troubled by what he'd seen at DNR since starting there in late 2021, including being asked to create official events around Franz's campaign schedule.

In fall 2022, Lugo recalled, Davis walked around DNR's offices in Olympia with a notebook, collecting personal email and phone contact information from employees.

A couple of weeks later, Davis sent out an email from his personal account to the personal email addresses of Lugo and more than a dozen other Franz aides, encouraging them to attend and possibly host a table at the "Do Epic Awards," an annual political fundraiser at the Seattle Convention Center. He called it "a great opportunity for us to show our support."

Another former employee recalled an assistant to Davis making similar asks for personal contacts before another private Franz fundraiser.

Davis said DNR is an emergency response agency, so it's "standard practice" to get personal contacts for employees to reach them at any hour. "We are cognizant of ethics rules and careful to keep state resources and campaign activities separate," he said in an emailed statement.

State law forbids using government resources — directly or indirectly — to aid a political campaign. Public employees are free to participate in politics on their own time. However, Washington state's Executive Ethics Board has advised managers in public agencies to "avoid campaigning among their subordinate employees."

"It's best if public officials are not in any way soliciting the support of a vote or financially from those who work for them in government," said John Pelissero, director of government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. "It puts them in a very uncomfortable position."

There has been no formal ethics finding against Franz. In 2021, the state Executive Ethics Board investigated and dismissed as unfounded a complaint alleging that she had broken state law by paying Davis too much and directed state resources toward her 2020 reelection campaign.

Davis and Franz admitted to one misstep involving Bobbi Cussins, DNR's former communications director, who was asked to resign in May 2021.

In exchange for getting paid about 2  1/2  months of severance pay and benefits, Cussins agreed to not make any public statements or write anything "disparaging or damaging" to the reputation of "DNR and its management," according to a termination agreement written by Davis and reviewed by The Times.

Cussins said she agreed to the terms even though she viewed the nondisparagement clause as unenforceable at a public agency. "It was all about Hilary. You can't come out and say anything negative," she said.

Franz said she didn't know about the agreement at the time. Davis acknowledged it was "an unnecessary measure, in hindsight."

As an at-will employee, Cussins could be let go for almost any reason. But she says the demand for her resignation followed her pushing back on Davis about using agency staff to prepare talking points for events she viewed as overly political. "I wouldn't let my staff do what seemed to be campaign work on state time," she said.

Davis said any suggestion that politics factored into Cussins termination was "categorically false."

Two other former senior DNR managers agreed to be named for this story, saying Franz brushed off agency expert advice in favor of political stakeholders.

"I am not foolish about the niceties of politics. But with this commissioner, it was very apparent to us from the beginning that her intention was to run for governor, and that shaped how she ran the agency," said David Palazzi, former planning program manager at DNR, who worked under four public lands commissioners before retiring in 2021. "We didn't sign up to promote someone's political career."

Kristin Swenddal, DNR's former aquatics division manager who started at DNR in the 1990s, and several current and former employees said in hiring Davis, Franz found a politically minded chief of staff with a similar mission.

Swenddal recalled meeting Davis after he was hired, telling him she was excited to work with him to publicize the work of the agency. His response, she recalled: "'The only thing I have been hired to do is to get her name in the paper or in front of a camera.' ... He was absolutely not there to do any work for the agency. It was, 'How can I showcase Hilary?' "

Davis worked as a senior adviser to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray before being hired as DNR's communications director in 2017. He was promoted to chief of staff in 2020 and is paid a $204,000 salary. He's one of several DNR executives who make more than Franz, whose $167,000 salary as an elected official is set by a citizen commission.

Davis dismisses such complaints as coming from people put off by Franz's bold leadership of DNR, which he said had previously been overlooked and underfunded in state government.

"We've launched transformational initiatives on wildfire and forest health, housing, aquatic restoration, rural economic development, carbon storage and forestland conservation, urban forestry — the list goes on. People can criticize our approach, but they can't dispute our success," he wrote in an email.

Current and former employees said that during multiple job interviews Davis brought up Franz's plans to run for governor — which some interpreted as an expectation to help her get elected.

Davis said he raised the subject so prospective aides, who serve at the commissioner's pleasure, would know she might not stay in the position.

Endorsement battles

Franz has led the 6th District race in early fundraising, having raised more than $820,000 to Randall's $530,000, according to the latest Federal Election Commission reports, which cover totals as of the end of March. MacEwen has raised about $50,000.

The top two vote-getters in the Aug. 2 primary, regardless of party, will advance to the November general election. Democrats have held the congressional seat, which represents much of Tacoma and the Olympic and Kitsap peninsulas, since 1965.

With that primary approaching, the fight over votes and Franz's reputation has found its way to some groups looking at endorsements in the race.

Earlier this year, some former agency employees told the progressive group Indivisible Tacoma that Franz is "an excellent public speaker" but said when there was "a conflict between what was in the public interest and political expediency, she opted for the latter," according to a summary of their complaints. Indivisible Tacoma endorsed Randall.

The unions representing DNR's unionized workers also recently weighed in against Franz and endorsed Randall.

Amanda Hacker, the president of the Washington Public Employees Association, said Franz had not adequately dealt with their concerns over wildland firefighter safety.

"She is on point when she talks. Her actions just don't meet her narrative," Hacker said, noting the union doesn't usually endorse in congressional races.

Franz attributes the union discontent to hard decisions she had to make during the peak of the COVID pandemic, including enforcing the state's vaccination mandate.

As a woman holding a major elected office, Franz said she's served as a role model and has had younger women and girls shadow her on the job.

"The number of women who have come to me and said, 'It's good to see you in a commanding role of a state agency but also in a very male-dominated field,' ... is huge," she said.


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