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Freshman Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) earned his suburban Seattle seat two years ago by running a campaign centered on his storied tenure as King County sheriff.
Now Democrats hope that revelations of corruption in the sheriff’s office will taint his reputation as an ideal law enforcement officer and cripple his re-election efforts.
Since last August, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has run a front-page news series about an array of problems in Reichert’s old fiefdom, ranging from abuse of power to officers hit with drug and domestic violence charges.
Josh Feit, news editor of the weekly Seattle newspaper The Stranger, calls the on- going revelations the “sleeping giant” of the campaign.
Reichert is not accused of any wrong- doing but some of the stories paint a portrait of an administrator unaware of questionable, and sometimes illegal, behavior by subordinates. The stories also examine whether Reichert let some bad cops retire with full pensions out of expediency rather than pursuing criminal charges.
“I think it creates a serious credibility problem because he’s shirking accountability for criminal activities that happened on his watch,” alleged Kelly Steele, spokesman for the state Democratic Party.
“Ultimately, in a broader sense, it’s the same problem with the Republican corruption in Washington D.C.,” Steele continued. “Reichert thinks that the rules don’t apply to himself and his friends.”
Reichert denies that he dropped the ball in any of the many cases the Seattle paper has outlined. His campaign and Republicans in the Evergreen State also are convinced that Democratic or third-party efforts to tie Reichert to the abuses and activities of rogue cops will fall flat.
“Dave has a record of 35 years of public service in the district; it’s a shiny, wonderful record and people in this community know what he’s done for this community,” said Bruce Boram, Reichert’s political consultant. “His record as sheriff speaks for itself ... that’s why the people of the 8th district elected him.”
Reichert fought his way through a three-way Republican primary to become the party’s standard-bearer after then-Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) decided to retire in early 2004. He then won a close race against a well-known radio talk show host to keep the swing district in the hands of the GOP.
Reichert’s victory is largely attributed to his high name identification, and visibility, earned during more than 30 years “on the job,” in police speak.
He garnered national attention during the tumultuous 1999 Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization, which saw massive riots. But he collected the largest feather in his cap, and the most fame, when he caught the infamous Green River serial killer just three years before running for Congress.
“By December 2003, Reichert was making behind-the-scenes arrangements with a publisher to write a book about the Green River case with a ghostwriter, a book that would portray Reichert as a dogged lead investigator while the FBI was described as an impediment in the case,” the Post-Intelligencer wrote in its first installment of the series, called “Conduct Unbecoming.”
One story recounts Reichert getting defensive when asked whether the investigation of a deputy was in any way swayed by political considerations.
“It makes me absolutely sick to my stomach that people would point at Dave Reichert, after 33 years in the King County Sheriff’s Office, almost losing my life,” he told the paper last August. “To have someone even ask that question of me, it’s offensive, very offensive.”
Washington State Republican Party Chairwoman Diane Tebelius, who vied with Reichert for the Republican nomination two years ago, said any allegations that Reichert was a bad sheriff are ridiculous.
“Instead of trying to dish up dirty things about someone, why don’t they try to find reasons to vote for Darcy Burner?” Tebelius asked, referring to Reichert’s Democratic challenger. “There is none. As long as there is none, Dave Reichert is going to do just fine.”
State Sen. Luke Esser, who also lost to Reichert in the Republican primary in the previous cycle, said using the sheriff’s department’s woes as campaign fodder will not work.
“More people call him Sheriff Reichert than Congressman Reichert,” Esser said. “In people’s minds he’s still, and always will be, the sheriff. It’s a lifetime title for him.”
Stuart Elway, an independent Seattle-based pollster, said he does not see the issue gaining steam.
“I don’t have a sense that it’s going to have much of an impact one way or another,” Elway said. “It seems the issue is fading.”
Furthermore, Elway said the details are too murky and complicated.
“It looks like it would have potential for an opponent, but it’s one of those things that it’s a hard case to make,” Elway said. “Administration of the office — it’s not the kind of thing that sets people on fire.”
A national Democratic operative strongly disagreed.
“He’s looking at front-page investigative pieces in his district saying he ran a corrupt office and ignored his oversight duties,” the source, who did not want to be named, said. “In an election year that is largely about credibility and honest leadership, these are two huge vulnerabilities.”
In one article, an FBI agent questioned the management of the sheriff’s office.
“What’s this group doing down there?” the agent was quoted as asking. “Who’s in charge? “Where’s the accountability?”
Last December the paper wrote: “A few weeks before that, two sheriff’s commanders also recommended [a deputy] be fired for breaking department rules. Instead, Reichert — then in the midst of a hot Congressional campaign — allowed [the officer] to quietly slip into retirement about two weeks later, records show.”
Feit said the allegations could hurt Reichert’s re-election.
“He won because he was the broad-shouldered sheriff, protector of the public, and this would turn that strength into a liability,” he said.
But it remains to be seen if such a strategy would work, Feit said.
“Will it have traction?” he asked. “I don’t know.”
For now Reichert’s campaign spokeswoman said the allegations are the furthest thing from the Congressman’s mind.
“We are not focused on comments from outside sources or from opponents,” said the spokeswoman, Carol Beaudu. “We are totally 100 percent focused on Dave’s re-election effort. Our fundraising is strong, our grass-roots effort is strong ... Dave is focused on his job as Congressman and representing the 8th district.”