Former Tacoma Human Resources Director Phil Knudsen filed a wrongful termination claim against the city Friday for damages that could exceed $5 million.
Knudsen says his termination last month was politically motivated payback for his refusal to change his account of a meeting with city attorneys the day before Police Chief David Brame fatally shot his wife and killed himself in April 2003. City Manager Jim Walton has said the firing had nothing to do with the Brame case.
During a meeting with city lawyers after allegations of domestic abuse surfaced in divorce proceedings between David and Crystal Brame, Knudsen and top aide Mary Brown said they urged Brame be placed on administrative leave and stripped of his gun and badge.
Then-City Attorney Robin Jenkinson and her chief assistant, Elizabeth Pauli, disputed whether Knudsen and Brown recommended any immediate action.
"Were it not for the Brame matter, I'd still be working there," Knudsen said.
Knudsen's claim, filed by Tacoma attorneys Ben Barcus and Paul Lindenmuth, charges he was fired "as a result of a conspiracy to discredit him," to punish him for speaking out in the Brame case "and for his refusal to commit perjury and/or false statements in official investigations."
"They're trying to pound on this gentleman to change his story, and he's not going to change his story," Lindenmuth said.
City officials want to damage Knudsen's credibility "in a very big and public way" because Knudsen's recollection of the gun-and-badge meeting could damage the city's defense in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Crystal Brame's family, the attorneys said.
The last thing the city wants is a credible Human Resources director testifying that city officials did nothing, knowing the police chief was unstable and that his wife had accused him of pointing his gun at her and threatening to kill her, they added.
Knudsen's termination was intended to bolster the city's defense, Barcus said.
"It's mean-spirited. It's vindictive."
Walton could not be reached for comment Friday.
But when he fired Knudsen on June 24, Walton said it was for trying to improperly interfere with hiring and promotion decisions. Walton also cited his concerns about Knudsen's character, integrity and commitment to "cultural competence."
Walton put Knudsen on administrative leave Feb. 26 pending investigations into two allegations of misconduct. In one, city officials charged Knudsen changed the "pass point" on a Civil Service exam in May 2002 to allow an employee to keep her position. In the other, he was accused of trying to sink a job candidate.
Knudsen said the charges were a pretext to get rid of him.
Knudsen, a longtime human resources professional who had earned the respect of colleagues and employees, planned to retire from the Tacoma position he took in 1999, his attorneys said.
Now, at 56, he's lost his $117,000-a-year job and his career has been destroyed, they added.
The claim, a legal step that can be a precursor to a lawsuit, asks for damages including loss of wages, emotional distress, "loss of enjoyment of life, personal humiliation and loss of reputation."
Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659