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

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