Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson was the guest of honor at Tuesday’s regular Edmonds Rotary Club lunch event, which was relocated to the Edmonds Theater to accommodate a larger-than-usual audience.
“This is my 131st Rotary address,” began Ferguson. “I love speaking to Rotary clubs because, even though I’m not a Rotarian myself, we’re in the same business — service to our community. Everyone in my office could make more money working for a private firm, but all are committed to serving the people of the State of Washington. We’re in service to you.”
He went on to give a quick overview of the AG’s office, noting that it’s the “largest law firm in the state,” employing 640 attorneys and more than 600 professional staff.
“Although we are part of state government, we are strictly independent,” he explained. “Our job is defending and supporting Washington State laws. Everyone has laws they disagree with, but as professionals we put our personal views aside.
“For example, I’m personally opposed to the death penalty, but this is irrelevant in upholding the law in our state,” he continued. “The people have made it clear — they want the death penalty and as AG my personal opposition does not interfere with my enforcement of this law. Think of us as the state’s law firm, providing legal advice, council, etc. As such, maintaining this independence is critical.”
But it’s more than just working for the state.
“We also work for the people,” he said. “And this is different from the kind of work we do for the state, focusing on areas like civil rights, criminal justice, anti-trust and consumer protection. It also includes work we do at the national level against the administration in Washington, D.C.”
Ferguson explained that maintaining the independence of the AG’s office means that things work a little differently when administrations change.
“The previous AG, Rob McKenna, belongs to a different political party than I do, and in many other state AG offices this means that when administrations change the new head will often clear out the staff and fill it with new folks,” he said. “But the independence of the AG’s office makes this pretty much a non-issue. When I took over, I asked McKenna’s five deputy AGs to stay, just as he had done when he took over from (Democrat) Chris Gregoire years before. The point is, keeping continuity is important. We’re independent professionals no matter who sits in the AG’s office.”
Ferguson then transitioned to explaining some the work of the AG’s Consumer Protection Division.
“We receive about 20,000 consumer complaints per year,” he said. “We have a big team that handles these, running down people and organizations engaging in deceptive or unfair business practices.”
As an example, Ferguson cited the case of a scammer in the Midwest who sent tens of thousands of letters to small businesses informing them that they were late in filing corporate paperwork with the Secretary of State and needed to immediately send in a $125 filing fee or bad things would happen. The letters had an Olympia return address and appeared to come from a government agency. More than 2,900 Washington businesses dutifully mailed in their $125, but of course there is no such requirement.
The scammer had done the same trick in other states, and other AG’s had caught them and settled for what Ferguson described as a “small amount of money.”
But Ferguson’s office brought a lawsuit and received a favorable judgment that ordered the scammer to not only pay back the people they’d deceived, but also pay Washington State a $1.1 million penalty.
“So in this case our office is a money-maker,” he explained. “Recoveries like this pay to run the Consumer Protection Division, with the excess going to the State General Fund. Because of actions like this, not one dime of tax dollars ever goes to pay for salaries and expenses in the Consumer Protection Division. It’s completely funded from judgements like these.”
He went on to talk about the 32 suits filed in the name of the people of the State of Washington against the current federal administration.
“I know that some in the state may not agree with or support these suits,” he said. “When we file, it’s not a political thing but rather it’s when we see that something illegal is being done.”
One case that received much national attention was the suit brought against President Trump’s Muslim travel ban.
“We were the first state to file, but others soon joined us,” said Ferguson. “The policy was controversial. No one argued that the President does not have the authority in this area. The U.S. Department of Justice was arguing that not only did the President have the authority to issue this executive order, but that it and other executive orders are unreviewable by the courts. They were saying that the courts can’t look at the reasoning, thinking and/or motives behind an executive order, and that the President has essentially unlimited powers that the courts can’t question.
“We argued that this is illegal, and the courts upheld our case and rejected the DOJ argument,” he added. “And I’m proud to say that Washington State vs. Trump is now used as a textbook example of the limits of presidential power.”
Ferguson gave additional examples including removing DACA protections and the separation of families at the border.
The subsequent question-and-answer session included questions about the suit against the poaching provisions in fast food industry contracts, in which franchise operators were compelled by their corporate headquarters to not hire employees from other franchises of the same company (for example, an Edmonds Burger King worker could not transfer to the Lynnwood Burger King).
Ferguson’s office saw this as a violation of anti-trust laws, that has the effect of suppressing wages for lower-wage workers. His office informed the companies that they would face lawsuits if they didn’t change this practice, and according to Ferguson “most have fallen into line” and that “so far” they haven’t had to litigate.
Another question involved gun control, specifically the requirement to purchase certain types of firearms and Initiative 1691.
“I’m a supporter of the Second Amendment,” said Ferguson, “but I believe that just as with free speech — you can’t scream fire in a crowded theater — there are common-sense limits on the right to bear arms.”
He explained that to purchase a handgun in Washington State, a customer needs to be 21 years old, complete an online background check at the place of purchase, and then wait 10 days to pick up the weapon.
But for an assault rifle such as an AK-15, you only need to be 18 years old, fill out the form at the dealer, and you walk out with the gun the same day. No waiting period.
“This is just what happened in the Mukilteo school shooting last year,” he explained. “The shooter bought the assault rifle at Cabela’s, read the instructions outside the party, went inside and started shooting. To me fixing this is common-sense gun reform, and is perfectly in keeping with the Second Amendment.”
Subsequent questions touched on immigration issues, full financial disclosure in the state initiative process, and protecting seniors from being exploited by relatives and caregivers.
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel