Report cites Federal Way judge's 'inappropriate behaviors'
STEVE MAYNARD; The News Tribune
Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Michael Morgan yelled at court employees, made sexist and rude remarks to court clerks, boasted about his status as the judge and boss, and retaliated against those who crossed him, according to an investigator’s conclusions.
Details of the report written by an investigator hired by the City of Federal Way came to light Friday, a day after the state Supreme Court unanimously ordered the report’s release to The News Tribune.
Morgan sued the city and fought 15 months to block the report by Seattle attorney Amy Stephson from becoming public. The city hired Stephson to look into a court clerk’s January 2008 allegation of a hostile work environment.
All 10 court clerks voiced “significant concerns” about Morgan, backed up with facts, Stephson said in her 14-page report. A court administrator made the strongest accusations. The administrator later resigned because of her behavior at a staff holiday party.
Morgan said in an e-mail to the newspaper Friday that “much of this report contains false and misleading information.”
Stephson said in her February 2008 report that Morgan inherited a court with management and other problems. She said he apparently ran his courtroom well. It was behind the scenes, she wrote, that “he has engaged in numerous inappropriate behaviors over the last two years.”
Those behaviors, “combined with other management problems, have created a work environment that is stressful, fearful and unhappy,” Stephson wrote.
Among the key points of her report:
• Morgan asserted his authority and demanded loyalty with comments to court employees such as “I won the election, I wear the robe” and “It’s my way or no way.” He called himself the “king of Federal Way” and his wife the “first lady.” (Morgan acknowledged to Stephson that he made comments like these but said he was joking about the “king” reference.)
• Morgan sought to transform the court into his own vision and did not meet with other city departments. He swore at Police Chief Brian J. Wilson in fall 2006 over the phone in a dispute over police changing a traffic school form without Morgan’s consent. After Wilson relented, Morgan boasted about the incident to another court employee, saying, “I lay the f-bomb on him.” (Morgan did not dispute the basics of this incident when Stephson interviewed him.)
• The judge made demeaning comments about court clerks to the court administrator, saying “clerks are nobodies” and “clerks don’t matter.” (Morgan denied making the comments but said he told the administrator he didn’t understand why clerks felt so entitled and empowered.)
• He swore and got angry, using vulgar language in the administrator’s office. (Morgan acknowledged to Stephson he can be loud and angry about circumstances affecting the court, but called them justifiable.)
• Morgan made a sexual joke to a clerk, talked about a clerk’s physical attractiveness, and made a reference to a rumor that a clerk was involved in sex with more than one partner. Morgan also talked repeatedly to some clerks about the sexual aspects of the resignation of his colleague, former Municipal Court Judge Colleen Hartl. (Morgan told the investigator that his staff had a right to know the truth of the Hartl case.)
Hartl resigned Dec. 19, 2007. She was later censured by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct for having a sexual encounter with a public defender, telling court workers about it while she was drunk at a party she held for them, and then trying to conceal her misconduct.
The Supreme Court ruled quickly after oral arguments in the Morgan case were made Tuesday. The News Tribune asked for a speedy review because Morgan will appear on the Aug. 18 primary ballot.
Morgan, 50, filed last week for re-election to a four-year term as one of Federal Way’s two Municipal Court judges, which pays $134,623 a year. Five people filed to run against him.
Morgan’s case to keep the Stephson report under wraps was based on the argument that it is not a public record but belongs to the court. He said it also is exempt from release because of attorney-client privilege and separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches.
The city contended the report is a record of the city and thus subject to release. The city’s position was that City Attorney Pat Richardson represented the city and the court at the same time, and that the investigator represented neither the court nor the city.
Morgan’s only response Friday was to pin his credibility to a polygraph test he took earlier this year. “I have been the victim of false accusations,” he wrote in an e-mail to the TNT.
“If necessary, I will take additional polygraph tests to demonstrate that much of this report contains false and misleading information as well as situations taken completely out of context,” Morgan wrote.
Morgan took a polygraph exam in February in part regarding the accusations of former court supervisor Cindy Roque. She has sued the city, alleging she was retaliated against and ultimately fired after she reported that Morgan made threats to hurt himself and others.
Morgan denied those allegations about him as well.
In April, Morgan said he hired Richard Smith of Olympic Polygraph Inc. in Puyallup, and paid him $500 in his own money for the exam.
Smith asked Morgan if he had ever stated or told anyone that he wanted to kill his co-workers. Morgan said no.
The polygraph examiner also asked Morgan about a sexist statement he was alleged to have made in the Stephson report. In it, Morgan allegedly complains to a city technology manager who came to the court to work on a computer problem, “Oh, when a pretty girl in a short skirt calls you, you come immediately.”
Smith asked Morgan, “Did you ever say ‘pretty lady with legs and a dress’ when speaking to” the employee?
Morgan answered “no” again.
Smith wrote that based on the polygraph test data, Morgan answered truthfully to all the questions.
But in the Stephson report, Morgan told the investigator that the skirt comment was “an innocent remark.”
Morgan was reprimanded by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct in December for swearing at the police chief, making intimidating comments to court staff members, and making inappropriate jokes and comments to court employees.
City attorney Richardson and Wilson, now interim city manager, declined comment on Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling.
Karen Peterson, executive editor of The News Tribune, said she was pleased with the court’s speedy decision.
“The people of Federal Way paid for this investigation,” Peterson said. “They have every right to know what it says.”
“A public official properly carrying out the duties of his office should have nothing to hide from his constituents,” Peterson added. “Judge Morgan tried very hard to keep this hidden.”
Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647 email@example.com