PORT ANGELES — State Employment Security Department officials should be fired after Nigerian hackers broke into the unemployment claims system earlier this year, defrauding the state of an estimated $650 million, the challenger for state Rep. Steve Tharinger’s seat said this week.
Republican Brian Pruiett of Sequim took issue with the Port Townsend Democrat on the ESD’s handling of the hack and other election-year topics Tuesday at the Port Angeles Business Association’s final general election forum.
Ballots were mailed Wednesday to registered voters in Clallam and Jefferson counties. Ballots are due in drop boxes by Nov. 3 or must be postmarked by that date.
The candidates disagreed on the validity of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s shutdown measures to fight COVID-19 and on sex education and Referendum 90.
Tharinger or Pruiett will represent the 24th Legislative District, which encompasses Clallam and Jefferson counties and half of Grays Harbor County.
Pruiett said he would have removed ESD management officials after the state lost $650 million in fraudulent unemployment claims if he had been in Tharinger’s Position 2 seat, which the former Clallam County commissioner has held for five two-year terms.
The breach was “an egregious offense,” he said.
“Mr. Tharinger, the incumbent, stated, well, we mostly got that taken care of. Everybody’s paid, and we got things taken care of at the employment security division,” said Pruiett, a military veteran and former civil service worker.
“To me that’s either ignorance or actually willful participation.
“The entire leadership needs to change.”
He said families “are still not being taken care of” with unemployment insurance that employers are funding.
“The bottom line is the ongoing corruption, the ongoing malfeasance, and it hasn’t been fixed.”
Tharinger said the state has recovered more than half of the stolen funds.
“Any corruption is a little sort of, a little hyperbole,” he said, adding that the system was overwhelmed by the volume of unemployment claims in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Corruption certainly came from the Nigerian group, but I don’t think there was anybody in the ESD department that was corrupt,” he said.
“That’s a simple bumper-sticker slogan, you know, that doesn’t really stick to reality.”
The candidates were asked if Inlsee “overstepped” his authority by closing businesses and mandating mask-wearing, and if he has, what the candidates would have done in Inslee’s place.
Pruiett said he would not have shut down small businesses and would have ensured that pandemic supplies were available.
“Hand-washing and masking are important, but they don’t cure the economic shutdown,” he said.
“It was wrong to close all our small businesses. I would not have done that. And as soon as we had more information, I would have said we have to reopen our small businesses, not keep them closed so long.”
Pruiett said the Legislature should have met in special session to address the crisis.
He said he agreed with Republican gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp, criticizing across-the-board budget cuts being sought by Inslee as “the lazy, ignorant way” to address budget issues created by the pandemic.
Pruiett said the Legislature must reconvene in special session, asserting Tharinger has refused to call for lawmakers to reconvene.
He said he would be “pounding the table” demanding that the North Olympic Peninsula be taken care of, “not the I-5 corridor interests, which our chairman of the Capital Budget Committee represents far better than he represents us,” referring to Tharinger.
Tharinger said he doesn’t believe Inslee overstepped his authority.
He said public health officers have great power during health crises.
“Whether he got it right charting the way through these troubled, uncharted waters, I think, is the question,” he said.
“Contrary to what my opponent says, I did sign a letter that would have requited the governor to bring us back into special session before the end of the fiscal year.”
Inslee saved about $450 million by vetoing line items in the supplemental budget, furloughing state employees and placing a moratorium on new hires.
A special session “didn’t make as much sense” after that, Tharinger said, also citing a positive revenue forecast and adding lawmakers put $200 million into a coronavirus response fund.
During the new legislative session in January, Tharinger said more cuts may be in store.
“There may be a need for taxes,” he said.
Pruiett criticized Tharinger for consistently favoring “more and more taxes.”
He also disagreed with Tharinger on sex education Referendum 90, which would enact Senate Bill 5395.
It mandates that sex ed be taught to students in grades K-12 by 2022-2023 under a state-approved curriculum that school districts can formulate. Parents could opt out their children from the classes.
Pruiett said children are already being taught sex education and that Referendum 90 would introduce “graphic sexual content” into the schools, from kindergarten to high school.
The curriculum gives 14-year-olds a “how-to-do-it manual” on being lesbian, bisexual or transgender, he said, adding that local school boards should have more control over what’s taught.
“Look at the content yourself,” Pruiett said. “It’s there on the internet, and you’ll see what they want to teach our second- and third-graders.”
He later said valid information on R90 is available at tinyurl.com/PDN-AntiR90.
“If you go to the Internet for information, I would advise you to not respect it,” Tharinger said at the forum.
“I would just tell you the opposition to this bill on the floor and what they talked about is some of the most disgusting, embarrassing time I’ve spent in the Legislature.”
He said the referendum is favored by prosecuting attorneys and teachers, adding most sex abuse occurs within family units and that children would learn “what’s appropriate and what’s not as far as contact and touching.”
Tharinger later said valid information on R90 is at tinyurl.com/PDN-ProR90.
A legislative synopsis of SB 5395 is at tinyurl.com/PDN-SexEdReport.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].