Pierce County report censures Washam conduct

Response: Findings based on phony information, assessor-treasurer says

May 28, 2010 

Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam abused his authority, wasted public money and violated the county code and state and federal employment laws, according to the findings of a county investigation.

Washam denies the allegations against him, states that the county’s report is based on “bogus whistleblower complaints” and describes it as “totally without merit,” according to a written response filed Monday.

The legal back-and-forth marks the latest salvo in Washam’s stormy tenure since taking office in 2009. The turmoil largely reflects an internal battle with his employees, who have filed multiple complaints against him.

The tension is growing. The report raises the prospect of a recall petition. That would sound an ironic echo: In 2005, Washam tried and failed to invoke the recall process against his predecessor, Ken Madsen.

The report, finalized Tuesday, was compiled by independent investigator Kent Nakamura. It grew out of a whistleblower inquiry conducted by the county’s Human Resources Department.

Among other things, it concludes that Washam retaliated against employees and pursued a vendetta that harms his office, using his position as “a pulpit of defiance.”

Thursday, in a written response to The News Tribune, Washam countered that the county’s investigation is improper.

“Addressing personnel issues through the whistleblower process constitutes an abuse of said process,” Washam wrote. “Mr. Nakamura’s purported findings are not findings based on facts, but rather are conjecture and without merit.”

The whistleblower complaints came from six unnamed employees. Most revolve around Washam’s treatment of those who dissent or complain. The report states that Washam used his position to intimidate, coerce or demean staff members.

“He has called them crooks and criminals, and has created hostility for them in the field as well as in the office,” one unidentified employee stated in an interview cited in the report.

Employees noted that Washam has installed large mirrors in his office. They believe he uses them to see what employees are doing when his back is turned. They say he has forbidden desk-to-desk discussions among employees, ordering them to converse in a designated area near his office door.

“Dale Washam flaunts being untouchable,” another employee stated.

It’s unclear what the findings mean. An investigator’s conclusion is not a legal decision. Washam is an elected official, theoretically beyond the reach of the standard range of sanctions for county employees.

County officials, who were still reviewing the findings and Washam’s response Thursday, declined comment.

Theoretically, the county has no power to punish an elected official who retaliates against a whistleblower, according to an opinion by Doug Vanscoy, the county’s chief civil prosecutor. The opinion was written on March 16. Washam requested it and posted it on his website.

“Because no appointing authority exists for elected officials, the only sanction which exists for elected officials under the chapter is the director’s finding itself,” Vanscoy wrote.

The initial series of complaints began with administrative officer Sally Barnes, a veteran employee who resigned March 16, citing intolerable working conditions.

In March 2009, Barnes filed a complaint against Washam, accusing him of age and gender discrimination and retaliation for filing an earlier complaint. An investigator later found insufficient evidence to support the discrimination claims.

But the investigator concluded that Washam had retaliated against Barnes for filing the complaints. The report found he subjected Barnes to severe ostracism, stripped her of duties supervising nearly half of the office’s employees, assigned her to a special project to remove her from her job and moved her to an inferior office.

The report released this week notes that Washam has compounded the problem by failing to take remedial action to resolve the earlier findings related to the Barnes complaint.

“(Washam) has elected, as the Assessor-Treasurer’s Office’s County head, to deny any prompt and effective remedial measures, or to seek to protect her or all persons who participated in the investigation of her complaint from retaliation, false accusations or future improper treatment,” the report states. “The contrary, in fact, appears to have occurred. Several complainants and others have been layoff subjects by Mr. Washam.”

Much of Washam’s ire stems from a personal crusade he launched long before his election. He contended that Pierce County failed to physically inspect many properties as required by state law for seven years. The claim formed the basis of his unsuccessful recall petition against Madsen: Washam took the fight all the way to the state Supreme Court.

He lost that battle, but ultimately he was proved right. Madsen admitted in 2009 that his office used statistical models to revalue properties instead of physical inspections. Madsen claimed the approach complied with the law, though state officials disagreed. The impact of the statistical approach is a continuing bone of contention. Washam says it’s big; the county performance auditor says there is no reason to believe property owners were harmed.

Either way, the inspection issue occupies much of Washam’s time. He has tried without success to force a criminal investigation into the matter. County legal officials have declined, advising him to move on. Washam has posted some of the correspondence on the assessor’s website.

The investigative report cites Washam’s self-driven investigations as examples of waste.

“Mr. Washam’s use of his office to pursue past matters that have been determined to be unnecessary to continue with, has resulted in his directing of public funds to be used without valuable result.”

The Teamsters Local Union 117 also has filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the assessor. Among other things, the complaint claims Washam failed to bargain changes in employee working conditions. The complaint is pending before the state Public Employment Relations Commission. Washam has denied the allegations.

Thursday, Washam noted that the county’s new report revolved around many of the same issues outlined in the labor practices complaint, which was the proper legal venue to air such grievances.

“These very same issues are already being addressed on the Unfair Labor Practice litigation currently in front of PERC, where they rightfully belong,” he said. “All these … actions have been filed by the same small group of disgruntled employees that were affected by budget cuts.”

Information from News Tribune archives was included in this report.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com

READ THE report

To view a full copy of the investigation and Dale Washam’s response, see this story on our website, www.thenewstribune.com

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED MAY 28, 2010.

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