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'Advocate for the people': Q&A with Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson
Even as the state tightens its belt, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson wants to do more.
Ferguson shared his goals and challenges in consumer protection, privacy, a high-profile discrimination lawsuit and the latest scams, when he met with staff of the Snoqualmie Valley Record, a Sound Publishing newspaper, Wednesday, July 10.
Q: You've made helping veterans a priority. What are you doing to serve Washington vets?
A: My father was a veteran. Both my grandfathers, and my great-great-grandfather, were veterans. I'm from a large family. All my uncles served in World War II. Fortunately, they all returned home. I've always had strong views about veterans issues – about mental health issues related to vets, the disproportionate number of homeless who are vets, job training. On the King County Council, I got very involved in veterans issues, and proposed the Veterans and Human Services Levy, which voters approved in 2005. I wrote it, I proposed it.
One thing I did in taking office was seeing what we do, currently, in the AG's office around veterans. The answer was 'Not a whole lot.' We changed that. We have a robust web presence. We're about to go public with resource guides related to veterans' legal rights. We want to make sure we're educating veterans. When someone calls in with a consumer complaint, one question we ask is, 'Are you a veteran?' We want to know that, and be able to track cases that are targeting vets…. Veterans (and) active-duty (service-people) have certain rights other folks don't.
Q: Why did the state file suit against Arlene's Flowers, the Tri-Cities business that refused to serve a gay customer?
A: Under our consumer protection laws, we have broad authority to make sure businesses follow our laws.… Our law against discrimination has a group of protected classes. You can't discriminate on the basis of race, religion… In 2006, the Legislature added sexual orientation as a protected class. In our view, it's the clear the owner discriminated against an individual because of his sexual orientation: He wanted flowers for his same-sex wedding. We are confident this case will end up in the state's Supreme Court and that we'll prevail.
Often with a small business, when we think they're violating our consumer protection laws, we'll send them a letter. We did that in this case. All (the owner) had to do was agree not to refuse such service in the future. She didn't have to admit she did anything wrong. She decided to contest it. That's her right… I do feel our argument is very strong.
Q: You've been working with Google on privacy concerns. What are your thoughts about privacy in the digital age?
A: I joined 22 other attorney generals in writing a letter to Google. Google changed its privacy controls, but didn't notify folks, giving them the chance to opt out or adjust their privacy settings…. (That change) shouldn't happen automatically. (Residents) should have the chance to weigh in and have the settings they want to protect their data as they move through the internet. Technology is moving at a rapid rate. In our office, we have to work hard to keep up with that, and protect customers.
It's our job and responsibility to hold powerful interests accountable who don't play by the rules. The average Washingtonian can't afford a high-priced lawyer. We're the advocate for the people.
Q: What are the latest scams that residents should watch out for?
A: Many scams… often have similar aspects. During the summer months, when the weather is good, you see folks come to your door, offering services… (and) contractors coming by, offering a great deal. Folks should always go our webpage to get information about the person at their door. Any deal that seems too good to be true, usually is.
Q: What else are you proud of?
A: We've got 266 people civilly committed at McNeil Island. These individuals are the worst of the worst… sexually violent predators. Every year, they come up with the possibility of being released. So we work to keep folks civilly committed. This year, we had 17 cases for recommitment. We have been successful in 16 of those.
There are sensitive constitutional issues at play. We take seriously the responsibility to protect the public. We're taking a look at what we can do, so that the legislature that gives us the proper tools to ensure the worst of the worst stay civilly committed.
Q: What do the latest round of state budget cuts mean for your office?
A: Everybody's got to do more with less. But to be candid, those cuts have real impacts…. I don't intend to scale back our customer protection efforts. If anything, we should be enhancing those. In a conversation with state legislators, I said, 'I'm about to hand you a (settlement) check for $5.5 million. Just leave me $2 million.' They said no. That's frustrating. (The Attorney General's) Consumer Protection (Division) brings in millions to the state for education campaigns, for folks to avoid being scammed. Tens of millions of dollars went to organizations that help keep people in their homes. One case generated more money for the state general fund than the state gave to the entire Consumer Protection Division.
Salaries were frozen for our attorneys for a number of years. A first-year attorney makes $50,000. A second-year, third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-year attorney makes $50,000 a year. You have a challenge recruiting and retaining the top talent with that system…. Our attorneys handle huge tort cases, where the state is being sued for millions. You have to have good attorneys. We're losing attorneys all the time…. Thankfully, the freeze was eliminated this year…. Addressing it is tough when our budget is being cut, but I felt something has to be done, because it'll ultimately cost the state more, as well as being unfair to those who are working extremely hard.