McKenna falls short on vow to reduce lawsuit payouts

Attorney General Rob McKenna recently learned an important lesson about keeping campaign promises.

Of course a cynical electorate would say that they never expect candidates for political office to live up to their campaign promises. But promises do matter and good candidates meet voters’ expectations.

Records show that McKenna has not lived up to his 2004 campaign promise to reduce the amount of money the state pays out in tort claims. Now that he’s running for governor, look for McKenna’s critics to throw that failure in his face every time McKenna makes a pledge in his quest to be governor.

In 2004 when he was running for attorney general, McKenna was critical of the amount of money the state was disbursing in lawsuits handled by his predecessor – Chris Gregoire.

“Taxpayers should not foot the bill: Lost lawsuits are costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. I’ll reduce lawsuits against state taxpayers by requiring state agencies to obey the law, and by seeking reforms that limit lawsuit abuse,” he wrote in his 2004 official candidate statement.

But records show that’s not been the case.

Washington agencies spent $76 million for tort claims this fiscal year – three times more than was spent the year before McKenna took office. Over the course of six years as attorney general, the state has paid out about $300 million in claims. That’s $70 million more than the last six years Gregoire had as attorney general before moving into the Governor’s Mansion.

Not surprisingly, McKenna attempts to shift the blame for the broken campaign pledge. He says he’s done a good job of managing the things under his control. McKenna said he’s aggressively pursuing ways to lower the state’s liability, such as risk management and early dispute resolution.

But the facts are the facts. In Chris Gregoire’s last year as attorney general, the state paid out $24 million in claims. But in the 2010 fiscal year, with McKenna at the helm, the state paid out $52 million and the payout in the 2011 fiscal year was up to $76 million.

McKenna blames the Legislature for failing to enact tort reform legislation to ease the state’s expansive liability. Lawmakers’ failure to act places government on the hook for major settlements even when the state is found to be only minimally at fault, McKenna said.

“Everything we can control and affect, we’ve had a lot of success with,” McKenna said.

But Lucy Isaki, a former senior assistant attorney general who now serves as the state’s risk manager under Gregoire, questions McKenna’s persistent focus on reforming tort laws. That’s not going to happen in a Legislature controlled by Democrats.

Isaki said McKenna doesn’t seem to be giving the same attention to the litigation sector as he does on criminal and consumer protection issues. And she said it doesn’t appear that he has established any type of creativity or overall strategy for the torts division, such as working with consultants to identify the right cases in which the state could push a sympathetic message and help establish a precedent with a smaller payout.

Isaki said, “I would certainly like to see them do more.”

Dan Sytman, deputy communications director, jumped to McKenna’s defense on The Olympian’s comment thread.

Sytman said the Associated Press reporter “failed to mention that how often the state knocks out cases with zero payouts. The 10-year zero-payout average is 58 percent – and in the 2011 fiscal year, the office ended 68 percent of the cases filed against the state with zero payout. We’ll put that record against any private law firm in the state.”

The problem is, zero dollar payouts weren’t what McKenna promised as a candidate. He pledged to reduce the amount the state was spending on lawsuits and – in fact – the payouts have increased under his leadership.

Voters, who seem greatly enamored by McKenna and his ability to beat Democratic Congressman Jay Inslee in next year’s race for governor, will be happy to point to his entire record as attorney general. But don’t be surprised if critics weigh McKenna’s gubernatorial promises against his failed promise to reduce tort payouts.

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