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Federal Way grad Heather Brooke shakes up British government

Heather Brooke - Courtesy photo
Heather Brooke
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Twenty years ago, Heather Brooke was getting her first taste of journalism at Federal Way High School.

Today, she is at the heart of a British parliament scandal that has already led to the ousting of the Speaker of the House of Commons and several other members.

It all began, as the New York Times has termed it, with a "modest request." Brooke asked, via the country's Freedom of Information Act request, for the Members of Parliament's (MP) expenses.

"At first they didn't know how to deal with the request," Brooke said. "I don't know if people had ever really asked for it before 2005."

All of Brooke's initial requests were rejected. She began the appeals process, which ended up in the high court.

"I won that battle," said Brooke, 38. "All the records were ordered disclosed. Our government sat on them for several months, then said they weren't going to publish until July. Then the documents were leaked and the newspaper started publishing and it led to this scandalous thing."

The scandal is that for years, the MPs had been using public funds to pay for their private homes and purchases.

In the United Kingdom, MPs may claim expenses incurred during the performance of their parliamentary duties. This can include the cost of accommodations to attend parliament.

On May 8, the Daily Telegraph began publishing a listing of what MPs had been expensing. People were outraged, and a media storm was born.

"I had no idea it would turn into such a juggernaut," Brooke said. "It's the biggest story in decades. There's a quiet revolution and Britain doesn't really do revolutions generally. It's described as one of the more dramatic times in political history. It's created a desire for change in a system that is still not very different from 300 years ago."

Cause and effect

The backlash was instantaneous.

Among the expenses were re-designing second homes, avoiding capital gains tax, furnishing other homes and food claims.

Eliot Morley was suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party for claiming expenses for a mortgage that was already paid. Shahid Malik resigned as justice minister after announcing he will not pay back any of the money he used for rent. Anthony Steen, Sir Peter Viggers, Nicholas and Ann Winterton, Douglas Hogg, Julie Kirkbride, Margaret Moran and Tory leader Andrew Mackay have already announced they would not seek another term.

The House of Commons called in the police to investigate the leak. The police said that the leaking was not a crime; however, criminal activity may have been present on the part of the MPs. A little more than a week after the first expenses were released, Britain's most senior police officer announced he would begin criminal inquiries into the alleged misuse of the MPs' expenses, the Telegraph reported. Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, announced that no MP who had broken the rules would be allowed to stand as a Labor candidate in the next election.

The biggest impact was on May 19, as the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, was ousted for lack of confidence in his management. It was the first time in 300 years a speaker had been ousted.

Part of the reason why there was such a flood of information and backlash is that in the United Kingdom, there is no tradition of public records the way there is in the United States.

"They (MPs) are not used to that level of scrutiny," Brooke said. "It was very aggravating. It's a different culture here, if you are used to the American mindset where public officials are helpful. Here it's a very different attitude, it's very frustrating, like hitting your head against a brick wall."

Local connections

Brooke credits her background in Washington state for her interest and exposure to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Brooke attended Nautilus Elementary School from ages 7-11 before returning to England. She then came back to Federal Way for her junior and senior years of high school before going to the University of Washington, where she wrote a sex advice column for the student newspaper and graduated in 1993.

It was at Federal Way High School that she got her first taste of the newspaper industry.

"I worked for the high school newspaper like a million years ago," Brooke laughed. "I took it as a class. I don't know that I did very much."

Brooke first got her FOIA experience in the much more open system that is present in the United States, requesting information for stories at both the Spokesman Review in Spokane and the Spartanburg Herald-Journal in South Carolina.

She moved back to England in 1997 to be with her remaining family after her mother died in a car crash.

After moving back to England, Brooke became a crusader for freedom of information. She wrote a book, "Your Right to Know," which explains how to use the Freedom of Information Act and access official information. She currently freelances for The (London) Times, Sunday Times, Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Independent, Evening Standard, New Statesman and other national magazines, and is a visiting fellow at City University's Department of Journalism. She also has a blog, Your Right to Know, at yrtk.org.

The U.K. scandal is still ongoing, as the list of MPs resigning grows daily. Scotland Yard has begun investigating and rumors and ideas swirl about what should be done to fix parliament.

And it all began with a simple request by a Federal Way grad.

A sampling of expenses claimed, according to the Daily Telegraph

Michael Martin: Spent more than £1,400 to pay for chauffeur driven cars to his local job center and Celtic's soccer ground.

John Reid: Used his allowence to pay for slotted spoons, an ironing board and a glittery "loo" seat.

Francis Maude: Claimed almost £35,000 in two years for mortgage interest payments on a London flat, even though he owned a house a few hundred yards away.

Bob Marshall Andrews: Claimed £118,000 for expenses at his second home, including stereo equipment, extensive redecoration and a pair of Kenyan carpets.

Douglas Hogg: Spent taxpayer money on the cost of having his moat cleaned, piano tuned and stable lights fixed at his country manor house.

Andrew Mackay and his wife, fellow MP Julie Kirkbride: Had "his and hers" second homes claimed.

Sir Peter Viggers: Claimed £1,600 for a floating duck island at his home, which he also admitted the ducks rejected.

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