Pierce County to pay $850,000 to 3 Washam employees

The News Tribune

March 27, 2012

Legal bills tied to Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam tripled Tuesday. County leaders settled a trio of claims for damages filed by current and former Washam employees. The collective payout: $850,000. The employees had originally sought a collective $3.5 million.

The settlements announced Tuesday involved the following employees and amounts:

  • Sally Barnes, former administrative officer: $400,000. Barnes resigned her position in 2010.
  • Jim Hall, former chief commercial appraiser: $300,000. Hall continues to work at the office in the appraisal division.
  • Cindy O’Neill, former project manager: $150,000. O’Neill was laid off in 2010.

Two earlier Washam-related claims, previously settled, cost the county $279,000. The tally for all five settlements: $1.13 million. That number doesn’t include an additional $535,000 in associated legal costs (chiefly attorney fees) tied to Washam’s office.

Washam did not respond to The News Tribune’s requests for comment. He has feuded with county leaders and his employees since he took office in 2009. He did not agree with the settlements, and wanted to fight the claims in court, sources said.

County leaders believe the costs of such a court battle would have been far greater. They were also afraid of losing.

The evidence against Washam would have included multiple county and federal investigations that found he retaliated against employees who complained about his actions. Washam accused employees of criminal acts, exposed confidential complaints, resisted county investigations and vowed to get rid of an employee (Barnes) “the dirty way,” according to public records.

Those legal hurdles were too high, county leaders decided.

“We did a thorough legal analysis and came to the conclusion that because of the actions of the assessor-treasurer, we had legal exposure,” said Mike Patterson, the outside attorney who represented the county in negotiations.

A statement from County Executive Pat McCarthy underlined the county’s concerns.

“Mr. Patterson’s firm evaluated potential legal exposure to the county and came to the conclusion that to carry this forward would result in substantial legal fees, not only for the defense of the action but for plaintiff’s fees as well,” McCarthy stated. “And we would still likely end up where we are today.”

The settlements ease the pressure of a continuing probe by the U.S. Department of Justice into Washam’s conduct. That inquiry is still active, but it won’t cost the county any more money, leaders said.

Patterson said he advised county leaders that fighting the claims in court was riskier than settling.

“I told them if you let this go to litigation that the legal fees alone are going to far exceed the values of the cases,” he said.

Jack Connelly, attorney for the three employees, said the settlements made sense for his clients (and for him – his office received one-third of the total payout.) He said the prospect of cross-examining Washam in open court was tempting, but that would have been a longer road.

“It’s something I’d like to do,” he said. “Had it been tried, it would have been a very powerful case. But I think also it gets down the road a year and a half. There’s a couple people that are still working in that office, and their entire goal is to do their job and to be able to do it well and serve the people of Pierce County.”

The negotiation process took months. It included reviews of thousands of documents, and interviews with more than 60 people, including the employees, Washam and his chief deputy, Albert Ugas. Patterson also consulted legal experts in employment law.

He spent extra time interviewing Washam, he said. He wanted to make sure the assessor had a full opportunity to explain himself.

“I allowed him as much time as he needed to tell me his complete story,” Patterson said. “I invited him to give me numerous documents. I spent a full entire day talking with him, and other days talking with him as follow-up. He has had every opportunity to tell his side of the story. I understand his side of the story.”

The controversy surrounding Washam stems from his long-running demand for a criminal investigation of past practices at the assessor’s office – a demand repeatedly rejected as wasteful and unnecessary by various county leaders, including the current and former prosecutors.

Washam’s predecessor, Ken Madsen, used computer models to revalue some properties instead of physical inspections required by state law. The topic is Washam’s signature issue. He tried to recall Madsen on those grounds in 2005 – the fifth time he’d tried to recall an opponent who defeated him in an election.

During the recall proceeding, Madsen, admitted using computer models. A judge ruled Madsen had “legal and cognizable justification” for his methods. The recall petition was rejected. Washam didn’t appeal the decision.

After taking office in 2009, Washam resurrected the argument, equating Madsen’s actions with criminal falsification of public records. He accused employees who worked in the previous administration of criminal complicity. The charge prompted employees to file multiple complaints against him.

The fallout led to official reprimands and internal investigations, including the still-active federal probe. A recall campaign against Washam narrowly missed reaching the ballot last summer. Last week, County Council members passed a resolution asking Washam to resign.

He also faces a public hearing today before the Pierce County Ethics Commission, where he will defend himself against charges of violating the county’s ethics code.

Barnes, a 30-year employee, was the key figure among the damage claimants. Records show Washam blamed her for the inspection issue. He called her guilty in front of other employees. Those who defended her, including Hall, were demoted or retaliated against, according to public records. Washam referred to them as “Sally’s lieutenants.”

Washam and Ugas accused Barnes of crimes. When she filed a complaint against Washam, he retaliated by changing her position. He tried to fire her and lay her off, according to investigation records. One investigation found that Barnes had done nothing wrong, and followed what she believed were lawful orders from her bosses.

In public, Washam said he had no hand in the personnel moves that led Barnes and other employees to complain. He said Ugas made the decisions. Emails and other records obtained by The News Tribune reveal Washam played the lead role in repeated, unsuccessful efforts to fire, demote or lay off Barnes and others.

When those efforts failed, he told Hall he might abolish Barnes’ job, records state.

“I just might have to do this the dirty way,” Washam said.

Those circumstances would have been tough to defend in court, Patterson said. The argument would have hinged on the limits of Washam’s power.

For three years, officials have acknowledged Washam was right about his predecessor’s use of computer models. The real dispute revolved around what Washam could do about it. Could he accuse employees of crimes? Retaliate against them for complaining about him, in violation of county codes and federal employment laws? Repeatedly demand a criminal investigation despite multiple refusals?

In various court filings and statements, Washam has argued that he had wide authority to run his office and personnel as he saw fit, regardless of employee complaints.

A self-taught lawyer without a degree or a license, Washam represented himself in court many times before his election in 2008. Since taking office, he has quarreled regularly with county prosecutors and officials, insisting that his legal opinions should prevail.

“It does happen with elected officials who believe that they’re the law unto themselves,” Patterson said. “I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding that because he’s an elected official that he can essentially ignore county policies and practices and otherwise take actions that I consider to be in violation of state and federal law. He’s made it very clear to us what his position is. That continues to be his position. We still come to our conclusion that he has created significant legal exposure for the county.”

By Sean Robinson, The News Tribune

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