From the start, Judges Colleen Hartl and Michael Morgan feuded.
She resented what she called his malicious behavior and “unibomber” style of e-mail communication.
He opposed the city’s choice of her as Federal Way’s second Municipal Court judge. He confronted her a dozen times in her seven months on the bench about her decisions and conduct.
Hartl and Morgan also waged a power struggle over who would control the city court as its presiding judge.
But it took tales of a Hartl sex scandal with a public defender to expose a behind-the-scenes courthouse drama that seems lifted from a soap opera.
Records obtained by The News Tribune through a court order reveal an intense, monthslong conflict that turned vicious between the two judges, who are among the city’s highest-paid employees.
The Federal Way court handles 17,000 cases a year, from traffic citations to misdemeanor domestic violence and drunken driving charges. Its caseload is expected to grow this year as a result of the police force adding 18 officers.
The judges waged their war of words in e-mails while overseeing a court whose goal is “to settle disputes in a fair, courteous and dignified way,” according to the court’s mission statement.
At least one City Council member has privately criticized the behavior of both judges. Jack Dovey, who was selected by his colleagues as mayor this month, shared his concerns with City Manager Neal Beets in a Dec. 24 e-mail.
“Judge Hartl may have made a bad decision,” Dovey wrote, “but Judge Morgan appears to be crossing the line and justifying his actions and not taking any responsibility for a problem he may have created.”
The volatile situation exploded into a scandal when Hartl reportedly dropped the bombshell that led to her abrupt resignation.
According to accounts circulated widely in e-mails by Morgan:
At a holiday party at her Federal Way home Dec. 14, Hartl told five staff members that she was having an affair with Sean Cecil, a public defender who appears regularly in her court.
While drunk, Hartl showed the workers a text message from Cecil about how good she looked in “tight jeans.”
Morgan attended the party and left before Hartl’s disclosure. He said he learned about it from a court employee and verified it with four other court staff members.
He talked repeatedly to three city prosecutors and the head public defender about the accusations and also e-mailed nearly every City Council member.
None of the records released to The News Tribune corroborates Morgan’s accounts from the party. City Attorney Pat Richardson said the city did not interview the reported witnesses. That’s the responsibility of the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, which oversees judges, she said.
“We accepted Hartl’s resignation,” Richardson said. “We don’t know what the truth is.”
Morgan e-mailed Hartl on Dec. 17, warning her that “a decision to fight to keep your job will result in even more difficult times for you and your family.”
Hartl replied the next day that Morgan should never contact her again except through an attorney. Then on Dec. 19, she resigned, citing personal and health reasons.
But the fighting only escalated from there.
‘WE HAVE MOVED ON’
Hours before her resignation was announced, Hartl asked City Manager Beets if she could go on administrative leave for a week. Two days later, she attempted to withdraw her resignation.
Beets replied to that second request in an e-mail: “Colleen, You resigned. We have moved on.”
In subsequent days, Hartl denied having an affair with Cecil.
She wrote her attorney, Anne Bremner, on Jan. 3: “I never told anyone I had a sexual relationship with Mr. Cecil, except for that night,” Hartl said. “I did not have an affair with Mr. Cecil.”
Hartl and Cecil did not return multiple phone calls from a reporter. Bremner could not be reached for comment, despite several attempts.
Morgan wrote three City Council members two days before Hartl’s resignation that Hartl had since revised her story. She said her relationship with Cecil “was improper and included going out for drinks and flirtations but did not include sexual intercourse,” Morgan wrote.
He called Hartl “a pariah in the workplace” and wrote that Hartl’s behavior indicated “either a lack of intelligence or that she was operating under an impairment.”
“No one, including me, wanted to be our city’s judge more than Colleen Hartl – and she threw it all away in seven months and disgraced herself and our court in the process,” Morgan wrote in an e-mail to a lawyer in the firm where Hartl’s husband practiced.
Morgan said he accepts responsibility for pushing Hartl to resign.
“In my estimation, for the good of our court the only reasonable thing to do was for Colleen Hartl to resign and I will take the blame for that decision,” he wrote.
Morgan elaborated in an interview this week: “I wanted her to stay resigned because it was the right thing under the circumstances.”
About the story of sexual indiscretion he says surfaced at Hartl’s party, he said: “My staff thought it was an honest disclosure about an intimate relationship.”
In the following days, Hartl lashed out at her fellow judge, saying he was the reason she stepped down.
On Jan. 3, Hartl wrote Bremner, her attorney, that Morgan “has been trying to get me out of there since I was appointed.”
“He has never wanted to work well with me, or any other judge that was not his appointee.”
Hartl quoted from a letter she wrote Morgan the day before she resigned:
“Your pure maliciousness towards me from the beginning has been evident to myself and others and the situation is unbearable, and has been for quite some time. I don’t know why you hate me like you do, but I can’t change that – it’s what it is and obvious.”
On Jan. 2, Hartl e-mailed Federal Way Police Chief Brian Wilson, accusing Morgan of spreading “malicious and bizarre untruths.” Hartl wrote that she “attempted to resign because I could not continue to be exposed to his threats and coersion.” She described Morgan’s behavior as “work-place domestic violence.”
Morgan said he learned of that e-mail from a reporter only this week, and he denied Hartl’s allegations of intimidation.
“I have never heard that from anyone,” said Morgan, who called the e-mail “disturbing and shocking to me.”
“I know there was a sense of friction because I was pointing out perceived mistakes by her,” he said.
Morgan said he had an obligation to deal with ethical issues involving Hartl because he was presiding judge.
He cited one example where he said Hartl contacted the police chief and intended to meet with a detective on behalf of Hartl’s neighbor, whose child had run away from home.
Even though her intentions were good, Morgan said, he wrote Hartl that she couldn’t meet with the detective because it would violate a code that prohibits judges from lending the prestige of their office to help others.
In another case, Morgan said Hartl didn’t notify the parties in a trial that the courtroom recording equipment wasn’t working. Morgan wrote that Cecil’s client could have benefited from that mistake and gained a new trial if the case had proceeded to a verdict and a conviction.
The case was dismissed for an unrelated reason.
“I tried to deal with issues with her directly,” Morgan said. “If she had issues with me, I didn’t know that until after she resigned.”
On Jan. 9, Morgan barred Cecil from representing defendants in Municipal Court. He also filed a complaint against Cecil with the state Bar Association. Morgan said the lawyer continued to defend clients in Hartl’s court even after she confessed to their relationship and before she resigned.
Richardson, the city attorney, said Federal Way prosecutors reviewed cases where Cecil represented clients before Hartl. They found no cases where defendants received preferential treatment or any other basis for an appeal, she said.
An Associated Press writer reported on Jan. 9 that Hartl resigned after claiming at her party that she was having an affair with Cecil.
The scandal then went public.
Morgan and Hartl also battled over who would be presiding judge. Morgan said both insisted they had the legal right to oversee the court in 2008, but Morgan agreed to step aside at the end of last year “to further promote court unity,” he said.
That dispute was about power and prestige, not money. The two judges earned the same annual salary of $127,520. But the presiding judge sets the court calendar, assigns cases and can hire and fire court employees.
Federal Way’s two-judge Municipal Court was created when voters approved a ballot measure in November 2006.
Voters were asked to raise the city’s utility tax from 6 percent to 7.75 percent in order to pay for 18 more police officers and other law and order positions.
In March, the City Council confirmed Beets’ appointment of Hartl. She went to work May 14 and worked just over seven months before resigning.
The state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct holds the cards on what happens next.
Reiko Callner, the commission’s executive director, said she can’t confirm or deny whether the 11-member panel is investigating any complaints against Hartl or Morgan. In e-mails, Morgan said Hartl was the subject of multiple commission investigations, while Hartl wrote that she was disclosing Morgan’s behavior to the body.
The state constitution requires investigations be confidential, Callner said. They’re made public if a judge contests a charge or when the commission rules that a judge has violated judicial code, she said.
Callner said the commission has issued no public rulings or charges against Hartl or Morgan.
In his e-mails, Morgan not only targeted Hartl’s actions, but also criticized the city’s selection process used to hire her. He wrote that defense and prosecuting attorneys did not have an “equal voice.”
Beets, the city manager, said a prosecutor and a defense attorney were on the panel that narrowed eight finalists to three.
Morgan also said the backgrounds of applicants were not thoroughly checked.
“I’m shocked that anybody would say that,” Beets responded in an interview this week. Beets said thorough background checks were completed on a number of candidates, including the three finalists. He said he personally called people who knew the final three.
Morgan was on the committee that selected the eight finalists. But Beets said he doesn’t recall Morgan opposing Hartl.
The fractious communications involving Morgan, Hartl and others are something to be concerned about, Beets said. But he wouldn’t elaborate because “it quickly evolves into personnel matters.”
When asked if he would do anything differently the next time he appoints a judge, Beets said, “I can’t think of anything.”
He said he expects to select an interim judge Feb. 19 to serve for a few months. Both judicial positions will be on the ballot in 2009.
For now, the city is using fill-in judges in Hartl’s place.
City Councilman Jim Ferrell, who received several e-mails from Morgan about Hartl, said the council wants the court fully staffed with good people so “we move past this and the court operates in a positive, constructive manner.”
Ferrell, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney for King County, said he’s known Morgan and Hartl for years and considers them friends. Ferrell said he had no concerns about Hartl’s selection last year.
“I had a great deal of confidence in her,” Ferrell said. “All I can say is it’s sad.”
Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647
HOW WE GOT THIS STORY
Federal Way Judge Colleen Hartl resigned Dec. 19, citing personal and health reasons. The next day, News Tribune reporter Steve Maynard requested all records and correspondence surrounding her departure.
The city said in late December that it would release the public documents no later than Jan. 18.
Hartl filed Jan. 11 to block the records’ release on grounds that they weren’t of legitimate public interest, violated her privacy and could lead to libel and slander.
Judge Michael Morgan did not contest the release of any records.
On Jan. 18, King County Superior Court Judge Laura Gene Middaugh ordered the release of 95 pages of documents to The News Tribune. She ordered the city not to release some highly personal records. Other documents were turned over with lines blacked out.
The News Tribune Michael Morgan
Elected to four-year term as Federal Way Municipal Court judge in November 2005, defeating incumbent David Tracy. Will be up for re-election in November 2009.
Past career: Public defender for 16 years. Previously was first general manager of Tacoma Symphony Orchestra and later had his own law practice.
Education: Earned law degree at Notre Dame and Seattle University law schools from 1981-84.
Appointed to Federal Way’s second Municipal Court judge position in March 2007. Served from May until resigning in December. Would have gone to ballot for first time in November 2009.
Past career: Presiding Municipal Court judge in Des Moines, 2001-2007; presiding Municipal Court judge in Normandy Park, 2004-2007. More than 18 years in criminal and municipal law. Previously worked as public defender, prosecuting attorney and in private practice.
Education: Graduated from Seattle University School of Law in 1987.