KIRO NEWSRADIO

WSDOT wraps up investigation into ex-employee’s gas price whistleblowing claims

Apr 25, 2024, 1:07 PM | Updated: 3:32 pm

Photo: A customer pumps gas at an Exxon gas station, Tuesday, May 10, 2022....

A customer pumps gas at an Exxon gas station, Tuesday, May 10, 2022. (File photo: Marta Lavandier, AP)

(File photo: Marta Lavandier, AP)

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has completed an internal investigation into a former employee’s claims he was pressured to lie about the impact Washington’s climate laws would have on gas prices — and that he lost his job because of it.

“The independent third-party investigation is complete and determined that there was not a preponderance of evidence supporting any of Mr. Smith’s allegations against WSDOT,” the agency said in a statement released Wednesday evening.

Scott Smith, a former transportation planner, filed a lawsuit last month, claiming he was pressured by the governor’s Office of Financial Management (OFM) and WSDOT to change the numbers in his reports that indicated that Washington’s cap-and-trade program was significantly impacting the cost of fuel. According to Smith, he calculated last year the program, part of the Climate Commitment Act (CCA) would lead to a 45 to 50-cent increase on every gallon of gas.

More on the CCA: State officials spar over impact of Climate Act on gas prices as drivers pay up

Smith claimed after he presented his report, his supervisors at WSDOT instructed him to keep that information quiet.

“On Jan. 18, 2023, I was told in a meeting with my direct supervisor that management would ‘prefer’ that I not include cap and trade surcharges in my quarterly fuel price forecast,” Smith said in March after the lawsuit was filed.

The Citizen Action Defense Fund (CADF), a conservative advocacy group representing Smith in the lawsuit, said he and other staff members were instructed to not include “carbon tax issues” in any email so that the agency could avoid public record requests.

When Smith refused to alter his calculations, he alleged a retaliation campaign began. State officials changed his duties, denied him a promotion, refused to approve leave and remote work and attempted to backdate and change his job performance evaluation, according to the lawsuit.

“The last straw that broke the camel’s back was when they wouldn’t approve my leave request to visit my elderly mother out of state,” Smith told KIRO Newsradio.

He said he was forced into early retirement last November, after more than five years as a gasoline tax revenue and price forecaster for WSDOT, and more than three decades as a state government economist. He filed a whistleblower complaint the same day.

WSDOT investigates whistleblower claims

WSDOT spokesperson Kris Abrudan said the internal investigation did not reveal evidence “that WSDOT staff violated any executive orders or human resource policies, nor did it support Mr. Smith’s allegations of retaliatory behavior or actions.”

Abrudan said those conclusions were based on multiple interviews with WSDOT staff along with a review of over a thousand files, emails and related documents.

Regarding Smith’s claims that he was told to lie about the CCA’s impact on gas prices, the probe found “there was no support for Mr. Smith’s allegations regarding the integrity of the state’s transportation forecast.”

Critics of the CCA wholeheartedly disagree with that statement. They argue Smith’s predictions were largely accurate and that carbon auctions have driven up gas prices by as much as 50 cents a gallon. Those numbers come from multiple expert analyses, including the Oil Price Information Service (OPIS), a Dow Jones company that collects fuel-pricing information for AAA and other clients.

A growing number of lawmakers and CCA opponents now contend that Gov. Inslee and the state Department of Ecology (DOE) were less than truthful about the effect the climate laws would have on prices at the pump. However, the impact of the CCA appears to have plateaued and Washington’s current gas price spike appears more related to a nationwide trend, rather than state laws.

While the internal investigation is over, Smith’s lawsuit continues in Thurston County Superior Court. As of now, there is no timeline on when a judge might hear it.

KIRO Newsradio

Image: Tacos are displayed at a charity event in October 2017 in Culver City, California....

Steve Coogan

Are tacos and burritos sandwiches? KIRO hosts say no, but a judge says yes

An Indiana judge who declared that "tacos and burritos are Mexican-style sandwiches" has cleared the way for the opening of a new restaurant.

20 hours ago

Image: On May 17, 1980, Carolyn Driedger examines a piece of measuring equipment at Coldwater2, the...

Feliks Banel

‘We got a real gut punch from it:’ Scientist recalls deadly Mount St. Helens eruption

This weekend is the 44th anniversary of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, a major event for those who remember it or know the history.

1 day ago

Photo: Petpalooza in Auburn....

Paul Holden

Weekend roundup: Local music, art, pets and more!

The weekend is here and we have lots of activities going on! There will be music festivals, free health services, pups and more.

2 days ago

Photo: Pro-Palestinian protesters have set up an encampment at the UW campus....

Sam Campbell

Protesters at UW encampment harass, shine laser in eye of photojournalist

A FOX 13 photographer was harassed and had a laser shined in his eye while filming near the pro-Palestinian UW encampment this week.

2 days ago

news protests college campuses...

Travis Mayfield

Mayfield: We’re all a little sus but we can also do better

This week our son called me sus. It's short for suspect and it's Gen Alpha slang for shady. But I'm going to admit something.

2 days ago

Photo: UW Seattle students set up an autonomous Liberated Zone for a "Free Palestine." It features ...

Steve Coogan and Charlie Harger

Group agrees to disband UW encampment after reaching deal with administration

Protesters who had set up an encampment on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle say they're packing up and going home.

2 days ago

WSDOT wraps up investigation into ex-employee’s gas price whistleblowing claims