Washam's law: Gadfly in charge

November 14, 2010 

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Dale Washam's official portrait hangs on the wall at the Pierce County assessor-treasurer's office.

OFFICE OF THE PIERCE COUNTY ASSESSOR-TREASURER

Richard Dale Washam, Pierce County assessor-treasurer, supports the rule of law – as long as he makes the rules and picks the laws.

He took office in 2009 armed with a fact: His predecessor, Ken Madsen, flouted state law. It was an administrative failure, not a criminal act: Madsen admitted relying on statistics to set some property values, and skipping physical inspections required by the state.

Washam tried and failed to recall Madsen on that basis in 2005, after losing an election to Madsen in 2004.

During his many prior runs for public office and his many attempts to recall public officials, Washam denounced his opponents. He cited employee complaints and lawsuits as proof of mismanagement, corruption and lack of leadership.

Now that he’s the officeholder, his tune has changed. All complaints against him are bogus, meritless and unjustified.

Employees have accused him of retaliation and mismanagement. Three independent investigations verified their complaints, finding Washam retaliated against employees, wasted government resources and abused his power. The findings also note he hindered the investigations.

Damage claims based on the findings open the door to lawsuits, exposing taxpayers to millions in potential payouts. A recall petition filed Oct. 29 seeks to oust Washam from office.

He scoffs. He continues to demand legal retribution for his predecessor’s sins and shirks responsibility for his own.

He has called his employees criminals – participants in fraud and corruption. He has ordered them to pursue his crusades on taxpayer time, and wreaked workplace vengeance on those who defy him.

He dismisses critics who say he’s chased his cause at the expense of running his office. He says his administration is fixing the mistakes of the past.

STARTING OUT

Washam’s tenure didn’t start with poison. After taking office, he briefly spoke of forgiveness and moving forward.

The honeymoon lasted a few days. Washam then fixed on a single employee, a high-ranking manager. According to public records, he falsely accused her of actions she didn’t take. When she complained, he demoted her and tried to fire her despite multiple warnings, and jeered the conclusions of an investigator who found the employee did nothing wrong.

Other employees suffered similar fates, according to the findings of three independent investigations. Washam suggests employees conspired against him, egged on by their union.

Public records, multiple interviews and research by The News Tribune provide the details of Washam’s tenure. They reveal a leader treating management like an exercise in prosecution.

‘COOKING THE BOOKS’

Washam was formally sworn into office Jan. 2, 2009. He’d toured the office a month earlier, meeting and greeting employees.

An appraiser, Gary Foreman, handed the new boss a one-page note, labeled “SUGGESTIONS FOR THE NEW ASSESSOR.” One of the 18 suggestions caught Washam’s eye.

“We have been cooking the books with appraiser initials on residential appraisal and not completing the six-year residential physical inspection cycle,” it said.

The memo spelled vindication – new proof Washam had been right all along about his old foe.

“It wasn’t even in my mind that Madsen would continue to do what he was doing after it had been brought out,” Washam said recently.

Sally Barnes, administrative officer, ran day-to-day operations on the appraisal side of the office. She had worked there for 30 years, slowly rising through the ranks, watching bosses come and go with each election.

Trailing Washam’s tour, she saw Foreman pass the note. Later, she asked Foreman for a copy.

Barnes didn’t know it, but picking up the sheet of paper marked the beginning of the end of her long career.

Four county investigations, court records, meeting minutes and internal e-mails provided details and quotes for this story.

Washam refused multiple requests for an in-person interview. His quotes in this story come from e-mails, statements uttered in public meetings or posted on his website, and quotes cited by others in public records, such as meeting minutes.

His chief deputy, Albert Ugas, declined a request for an interview.

THREE MEETINGS, ONE DAY

Washam’s first days in power established a regular routine. He wanted moments of silence before every meeting, large or small.

The morning of Jan. 22, 2009, started with a small meeting. Washam spoke with two senior managers: Barnes and Billie O’Brien, who ran the treasurer side of the office.

After a moment of silence, Washam lit into them.

“He asked in an angry tone who falsified records in the office. I told him that no one had falsified any records.”

– Excerpt of Barnes’ notes

“Falsified” was Washam’s word for assessments compiled statistically during Madsen’s administration. Barnes said the records weren’t falsified – no one altered the statistics.

Washam said the matter would become public before long.

“I prayed to God last night,” he told Barnes and O’Brien. “I don’t know your religion, but you better pray to God on this one.”

At 11 a.m., he held a larger meeting with eight senior managers, including Barnes, O’Brien and Jim Hall, who headed the commercial appraisal division.

Washam started with a moment of silence. He said he would be praying. When the silence ended, he accused the managers of fraud. They had no integrity.

“What is integrity?” Washam asked. “Trust. I’ll teach you about integrity.”

All the managers were complicit in “falsification” of records, he said.

“You all had a hand in this and you should have stood up and been whistleblowers,” he said. “You should have stopped it and you didn’t and now you have to answer for what you did. You should have quit your jobs. I quit a job over something like this.

“When I filed a recall action none of you were out there supporting me.” he added.

He demanded written, signed responses from each staff member, asking them to define the impact of the “falsified” records on taxpayers.

Hall mused aloud.

“I feel like I need to get an attorney,” he said.

Hall and Mark Williams, another supervisor, tried to explain. The county exploded with new construction during the housing boom: about $8 billion in new residential and commercial property between 2005 and 2008. All that growth had to be assessed, and the office was short-staffed.

New construction – growth – claimed first priority for physical inspection. New properties added new tax money. New tax money reduced overall tax rates for everybody.

Statistically, mature properties changed little over time. Even if their values were generated without physical inspections, they met standards of accuracy.

If anything, Hall said, the taxpayers probably were paying less than they would have had every physical inspection been done.

They hadn’t gone by the book, and they had argued against Madsen’s practices at the time – but that was what Madsen wanted, and Madsen was the boss. The managers followed his instructions.

Washam was skeptical. He wanted opinions from county prosecutors and the state Department of Revenue.

Barnes said Madsen and his chief deputy, Kathy Fewins, had told employees the Revenue Department knew about Pierce County’s methods and approved them.

Washam was annoyed. He wanted numbers, right away, that afternoon – a tally of exactly how many records had been “falsified.” He expected to see them after a break.

His accusatory tone, coupled with the religious references, made the staffers uneasy.

After the second meeting, seven employees, including Barnes and Hall, called county human resources officials and told them about Washam’s behavior.

They returned from the break for a third meeting. Mike Johnson, the office computer guru, cobbled numbers on the fly. Barnes gave them to Washam.

Washam was miffed. This wasn’t what he wanted. The numbers of “falsified” records weren’t big enough. They had to be wrong.

Barnes and Johnson said the numbers were accurate. Washam demanded signed statements from both of them attesting to it. He said he would meet county leaders the following day, and decide what to do next.

FORGIVENESS

The next morning, Washam returned in a forgiving mood. In a meeting with Barnes and O’Brien, he said there was no point in going back – no benefit to anyone. Better to think of the taxpayers.

The office would pick up missed physical inspections from the previous year, he said. Start fresh, develop a new plan, catch up over time.

Shortly, he would meet with county Executive Pat McCarthy and a deputy prosecutor and explain the situation: The staff had followed Madsen’s directions – Madsen was to blame.

Washam said he’d try talking McCarthy into a budget assist to catch up. The main thing was to fix the errors, to help, to protect everyone.

He returned from the McCarthy discussion in high spirits and called another manager’s meeting.

“The boil is popped and gone,” Washam said.

There was no need to address the missed inspections from the previous year; the prosecutor’s office would put it in writing.

“This exonerates me from any wrongdoing,” Washam said. “This is no longer a problem. The issue is done and gone. Let’s forget it.”

He told the managers they needed to tell him if he said anything offensive. He would listen.

Someone asked whether the legal opinion would protect the staff. Washam said there was no need to worry.

“We can all move forward,” he said.

The formal opinion soon arrived. It said Washam faced no legal obligation to correct property values from previous years and had no legal authority to do so.

For a few days, tension eased in the office. The new boss appeared mollified.

All that changed Jan. 29, when Washam met with McCarthy and Betsy Sawyers, director of human resources.

The leaders said a group of unnamed employees had expressed concern about Washam’s penchant for religious references in the workplace. He needed to restrain himself. Asking employees to participate in prayer or moments of silence was inappropriate.

“Washam became very upset. After heated discussion, he agreed to comply with their request.”

– Excerpt of investigative report

The employees weren’t named, but Washam had no trouble guessing who they were.

There would be no more talk of moving on or forgetting the past – ever again.

‘YOU HAVE TO SUE ME’

In a short meeting with staffer Rhonda Aida on Feb. 3, 2009, Washam grumbled. Someone had turned him in to county HR “for believing in God,” he said.

At the next management meeting – Feb. 4, 2009 – Washam torched the supervisors. The HR complaint was a mistake, he said – the wrong place to go. The managers should have come to him first.

They could complain all they wanted. Washam was an elected official. He couldn’t be fired.

“You have to sue me, because the county won’t do anything,” he said. “Anything I do, you have to sue me.

“That’s the end of it. I won’t talk about it again.”

It wasn’t the end. For the next few weeks, Washam talked to anyone who would listen about the HR complaint: a manager had turned him in.

“I’m not quite sure who, but I’ve got it narrowed down,” he said.

One employee heard Washam say it was Sally Barnes.

Hunter George, the county executive’s communications director, spoke with Washam in February about the physical-inspection issue and potential media reaction. He said reporters might ask Washam whether heads would roll.

“Washam said there were two managers at the same level, and he wanted one of them to be the ‘head’ that rolled.”

– Excerpt of investigative report

ACCUSATION

Employees at the office noticed Barnes was being shunned. Washam avoided conversation with her, held meetings without her. Fearing the association, some employees followed suit; no one wanted to get on the boss’s bad side.

Washam hired an assistant, Gretchen Borck. She handled all his correspondence. He preferred paper to computer screens. Borck had to print everything and file it in brand-new three-ring binders.

On Feb. 24, Washam handed out a questionnaire to all employees and asked them to write their own job descriptions.

Later that day, he stopped Barnes at the copy machine.

“I want to meet with you now,” he said.

In a conference room, with Borck nearby taking notes, Washam chided Barnes for not including him in a meeting with two other managers a few days earlier.

Barnes apologized. She’d spaced. It had been a routine meeting.

Washam grew stern. He accused Barnes of interfering with his questionnaire by telling employees to submit printed copies of their county job descriptions. Washam had wanted personally written answers.

Barnes didn’t know what he was talking about. All she could think of was a meeting earlier in the day with Mark Williams, another supervisor.

A pair of employees had stopped by and asked what they were supposed to do with the questionnaire. Barnes had looked at the form, and told them she would ask the boss.

“You are interfering with my request!” Washam said, his voice rising. “This is not the first time you have done this.”

“Are you accusing me of this?” Barnes asked.

She denied it. Washam got angry. His face reddened. She denied it again. She asked which employee accused her.

“Why did the staff turn their questionnaires in to Mark Williams?” Washam asked.

“I have no idea,” Barnes said.

Washam’s voice rose. Why had Barnes held a private meeting with two other managers in the upstairs office?

To discuss budget and staffing, Barnes said. Sensitive topics. Better upstairs than in this conference room – people in the adjoining office could hear the conversations through the walls.

Washam lowered his voice.

“Whose office is that?” he said.

“Mark Williams.’”

“Who went to HR about the moment of silence?” Washam asked.

“I will not disclose that.”

“If you won’t disclose who went to HR about me, then I am not disclosing who told me about you,” he said.

“He turned towards me with almost a smirk on his face and said, ‘talk to staff, and if you find that person they can come and apologize.’”

– Excerpt from Barnes’ notes

As Barnes left the room, she heard Washam throw her a hint: There was an employee who didn’t like her.

According to records, Barnes guessed it was Albert Ugas, one of the appraisers. After the meeting, she talked to him. Her notes say Ugas denied talking to the boss at first, then admitted it.

Two days later, Washam called Barnes into another meeting. Again, he accused her of talking to staff about the questionnaires.

Yes, Barnes said. Washam had told her to “talk to staff.”

Washam got angry, and said he hadn’t.

“If this behavior continues, there will be disciplinary action and more,” he said.

Later, Barnes met privately with Joe Carrillo, the county’s labor relations manager, and described the climate at the office. She set aside two hours of vacation time. A few days later, she took another half-hour of vacation to talk with her union representative.

THE LEAK

On March 3, Washam got wind of a possible story in The News Tribune. A reporter was asking questions about internal meeting minutes that referenced the physical inspection issue.

Washam fretted to Jim Hall. Obviously, the minutes had been leaked to the newspaper. Washam said he suspected Barnes, records say.

Washam asked Hall to consider becoming the chief deputy – the assessor’s right hand. Hall agreed to think about it.

Washam swiftly called Barnes into another meeting. Her notes say Hall had warned her that Washam suspected she’d leaked the meeting minutes. (She didn’t; The News Tribune obtained the information from other sources.)

“This meeting is about you and protecting you,” Washam told her.

He wanted a written statement from Barnes about the physical inspections. He would give it to the reporter.

“I am here to defend you,” Washam said. “I just want the truth. There is nothing better than the truth.”

COMPLAINT

Tension in the office escalated over the next two weeks.

Washam unearthed records of his 2005 recall petition, including an affidavit from Barnes that explained the use of statistical models.

Here it was, Washam told Jim Hall in a private meeting: proof of Barnes’ complicity in the falsification of records.

Hall defended his co-worker. Barnes had followed the directions her bosses had given, he said. She would have lost her job otherwise.

Washam spoke to the Pierce County Council on March 11 and sought relief from a proposed budget cut. He had to catch up on missed physical inspections. He couldn’t afford to lose people.

The council asked county performance auditors to run a quick study of the issue.

The same day, without Washam’s knowledge, Barnes filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint with county human resources. She accused Washam of retaliation and discrimination.

“He has targeted me from the start,” Barnes wrote. “I have been accused of saying things I did not say. … Mr. Washam needs to attend anger management classes and learn to control his temper. ... Mr. Washam needs to have a psychological evaluation to make sure he is stable enough to hold this position.”

‘THE DIRTY WAY’

The News Tribune ran a front-page story on March 12. It summarized Washam’s speech to the County Council and quoted Madsen’s grudging admission that some physical inspections had been skipped during his tenure – the same admission Madsen had made in open court four years earlier.

In the news story, Madsen suggested the Department of Revenue gave him permission. Department leaders denied it.

(The claim stemmed from an informal 2001 lunch meeting between Madsen and Fewins and a department leader. During the lunch, Madsen reportedly explained his ideas about statistical appraisal methods as “the wave of the future.” There was no official approval for the practice, according to public records – but Madsen and Fewins had told their employees otherwise.)

Washam publicly vowed to complete all required inspections.

He later met with Carrillo, the labor relations manager, and said Barnes would have to be fired or demoted. He brandished the affidavit she’d filed in the 2005 recall case.

Carrillo looked it over and said Barnes’ statements were facts and opinions – not just cause for disciplinary action.

Washam didn’t like the answer.

“I know what side you’re on,” he told Carrillo. “This meeting’s over.”

Washam went back to his office and complained that he couldn’t get rid of employees because of “the frickin’ union.” Seven staff members heard him say he didn’t trust Barnes.

Privately, Washam met with Hall, and said Barnes was “one of them.”

Hall warned Washam of the risk. The county might have to write a big check. He suggested seeking advice from the prosecutor’s office.

Washam agreed, but returned dissatisfied. He’d been told he needed just cause to fire Barnes. Privately, he told Hall he might abolish Barnes’ job, or perhaps “go public” with the information, according to investigative records.

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

‘YOU’RE A PROTECTIONIST’

In mid-March, Matt Temmel, county performance auditor, started the requested study of the physical inspection issue. That meant meeting with staff members from the assessor’s office.

Washam wanted Barnes excluded from meetings. She was “guilty,” he said. County investigation records state Washam tracked Temmel’s interviews with staff and questioned employees about them afterward.

During a subsequent meeting with Temmel and managers, Washam pointed directly at Barnes and accused her of “pushing the button” on falsified records.

Barnes hadn’t – Mike Johnson, the office data guru, had entered the information.

“Washam told Temmel that everyone was being cooperative and trying to get the office back on track, except Barnes. And ‘Someone needed to be held accountable, and that’s Sally.’ He told Temmel to ‘get rid of Sally Barnes.’”

– Excerpt of investigative report

Barnes took another 90 minutes of vacation time for a quiet meeting with HR.

Washam announced a change in vacation policy. Someone was abusing it by taking “two hours here and four hours there.”

He told other employees the policy change wouldn’t apply to them.

“I’ll approve anything you want,” he said.

In another private meeting with Hall, cited in investigative records, Washam asked a question.

“What would you do if I asked you to fire Sally Barnes?”

Hall said it would take time, documentation and just cause. Washam was peeved. He said the prosecutor’s office gave the same answer.

Hall said that if he had to testify about Barnes in court, he would tell the truth.

“If I end up on the witness stand,” he said, “I’m going to say some good things about Sally.”

Washam’s face reddened. His voice rose.

“You’re just a protectionist,” he said.

The boss stood and opened the conference room door. Hall knew it was time to go.

NO HARM

Washam wanted backing for his cause. He wrote letters to state attorney general Rob McKenna and state auditor Brian Sonntag, asking them to support a criminal investigation of the physical-inspection issue.

At the office, he demanded more data on the falsified records, and told all employees to outline their involvement in writing.

On March 30, county performance auditors released the results of their study. They concluded taxpayers probably suffered no harm.

“What was the impact of the lack of physical inspections? According to the experts with whom we conferred, it is likely that individual taxpayers were not harmed.”

– Excerpt of audit report, March 30, 2009

The study reflected interviews with employees and state Revenue Department officials, and consultation with a former chief appraiser, Don Duncan, who had worked in the assessor’s office for 17 years before Washam’s arrival.

It also said the Revenue Department saw no need for immediate corrective action. The county could adjust over time.

Washam had heard the same thing from his own managers earlier in the year and discounted it. His reaction to the audit report was much the same.

“Nothing but non-factual conjecture and unsupported conclusions,” he told The News Tribune.

Another setback followed. An April 1 letter from the attorney general’s office declined to support Washam’s call for a state investigation, and advised him to consult county prosecutor Gerry Horne.

A reply from the state auditor also declined to support Washam, citing opinions from the Revenue Department.

‘BOGUS’

Two days later, Washam took another hit. County HR told him he was the subject of an EEO complaint by an unnamed employee. An independent investigation would follow. The cost would come from Washam’s budget.

“Please also note that you must allow any staff members named as potential witnesses to participate and cooperate fully in the investigation without fear of reprisal and/or retaliation by you or any member of your staff.

“Retaliation is specifically prohibited. Any form of retaliation against the complainant and/or any person, who participates in a complaint or investigation is prohibited and will not be tolerated by the County. We are further notifying you that investigations are strictly confidential and we specifically require that employees do not discuss the investigation with you and/or any other staff members.”

– Excerpt of memo to Washam, April 3, 2009

Washam paid little heed to the instructions.

He discussed the complaint with employees. He posted an announcement on his official county website, complaining about the costs of “an un-named person’s bogus complaint.”

He told employees it came from someone who expected to be fired. He told them the investigation had cost $60,000 in public money, which was untrue – $3,000 had been billed at the time. (The total cost topped out at $18,000.)

He ignored the investigator’s requests for an interview. He refused to provide requested documents. He refused to allow the investigator to tour the office.

(At times, Washam has cited concerns about the money collected by the assessor as the basis for denying access to the office. An undated set of meeting minutes obtained by The News Tribune via public disclosure quotes Washam telling supervisors, “I’m afraid of going to the men’s room because I could be identified as the assessor and taken hostage.”)

Washam’s assistant, Borck, agreed to one interview with the investigator, but she challenged the questions and refused further participation, records state. At one point, according to records, she told an HR official, “If he (Washam) knew I was talking to you, I’d be fired on the spot.”

SHOCK TREATMENT

Privately, according to records, Washam sketched his plan to remake the staff and eliminate Barnes’ position. Publicly, he wrote to Horne, the county prosecutor, and requested a full investigation of the physical-inspection issue.

On May 11, 2009, Washam announced his staff makeover and left employees in shock.

Albert Ugas, a mid-level appraiser, was promoted to chief deputy. Two managers swapped jobs. Jim Hall, head of the commercial appraisal division, was shifted to the statistical-residential side. Shelly Pollitt, who oversaw statistical-residential, moved to Hall’s position.

Both managers were puzzled. Hall knew the commercial side and Pollitt didn’t. Told of the swap, she started laughing. Then she wondered whether Washam was setting her up to fail.

Barnes was booted from her job as administrative officer and assigned to an unidentified “special project.” Her supervisory duties were eliminated, her access to computer files restricted. She was evicted from her office.

Barnes wasn’t the only evictee. Mark Williams was transferred from his office to a cubicle. His office had adjoined Washam’s.

The boss wanted more space. He knocked down a wall between the two rooms, gaining a clearer view of the area where appraisers worked. He installed a mirror that allowed him to turn his back and see what employees were doing.

Washam later told The News Tribune he didn’t know about the personnel moves or the office expansion. Those ideas and decisions came from Ugas, he said.

Multiple internal records say the opposite.

For months, Washam told employees he intended to fire Barnes, demote her or abolish her position. He’d met with one unidentified employee and laid out his plan on paper, records state.

He’d told other county leaders of his plans, including a deputy prosecutor and the county labor relations manager. He’d told performance auditor Matt Temmel to “get rid of Sally Barnes.” He’d told Hall he wanted to fire Barnes, and if he couldn’t do it officially, he would do it “the dirty way.”

‘A BLOWTORCH’

Amid the office turmoil, Washam got a letter from Horne, the county prosecutor, declining the request for a criminal investigation. The letter cited the advice Washam received in January from the prosecutor’s office, and the recent performance audit report.

Horne also mentioned Washam’s failed recall effort in 2005 and the judge’s finding that Madsen had a “legally cognizable justification” for his actions. Washam wanted a criminal investigation of the same circumstances. The burden of proof was far higher, the chances of success far lower.

“I frankly do not believe that the use of further investigative resources is warranted,” Horne said.

After his promotion to chief deputy, Ugas chatted with Hall, who had once been his supervisor.

Ugas said Hall was more qualified for the chief deputy slot, but didn’t get it because he’d “stepped on his dick” with Washam, according to Hall’s notes, which appear in investigative records.

Ugas later confided to Hall that working for Washam was like working for “a blowtorch.”

‘PERENNIAL’

At a meeting in July 2009, Washam took offense at a single word: “perennial.” Hall used the adjective to describe citizens who regularly appealed their annual property-tax valuations.

Washam blew up. In his prior runs for elected office, he’d been called a “perennial candidate.” The word was bigoted, he said. Hall received a written reprimand for the incident. Later, some of his supervisory responsibilities were removed, and he was demoted.

The EEO complaint filed by Barnes had been investigated all summer long. It involved interviews with various employees.

Investigative records state that in late July, staff member Debbie Brammer noticed a list of names sitting on the copy machine. Borck, Washam’s assistant, had left it behind.

The list included the names of every employee who had been interviewed in the Barnes investigation, the length of the interviews and analysis of each individual.

The next day, Washam ordered employees to limit their conversations to two minutes, in designated “work discussion areas,” within view of his office.

FINDINGS

The Barnes investigation was released in August. It found no evidence that Washam discriminated on the basis of age or gender, but it concluded he had retaliated against Barnes.

The findings painted a grim picture of the office climate.

“Employees have observed that Washam has no respect for the rules. Front office employees report they hear paper shredders (an extra shredder was purchased by Borck) shredding papers for about 20 minutes to an hour every day.

“Employees describe the office as an ‘armed camp;’ you can ‘hear a pin drop’ even though there are 90 people in the building. People are afraid to hold meetings, and there is tension everywhere.”

– Excerpt of investigative report

Washam posted an announcement on his website, calling the findings “bogus.”

Following discussion with their union representative, employees filed new complaints against Washam, though he didn’t learn of them immediately. Collectively, there were at least nine, alleging abuse of authority, intimidation and retaliation.

The employee union weighed in, filing a complaint of unfair labor practices – Washam’s various actions were supposed to be negotiated, and he wasn’t bothering, the complaint stated.

The run of complaints triggered new investigations – the county assigned them to a pair of contracted investigators. Again, Washam’s office would pay the costs.

In September, he released his own investigation: a lengthy account of the physical-inspection issue. He posted it on his website and delivered it to the County Council.

He renewed his calls for state intervention. He wrote the governor, the attorney general, the state treasurer and the state auditor, Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell and Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor. All the agencies advised him to consult the county prosecutor.

Another counter-move came in late November. Ugas filed a whistleblower complaint against Barnes, accusing her of misconduct and perjury.

The office was in disarray. Three investigations, all requiring employee interviews, were running at the same time. Collectively, the costs of each inquiry, along with the earlier Barnes investigation, would exceed $100,000.

RESIGNATION

In January 2010, Washam again tried to persuade the county prosecutor to start an investigation. Again, the answer was no. Mark Lindquist, the newly appointed prosecutor, again cited Washam’s failed 2005 recall, and the findings by county performance auditors.

“Nothing has changed and therefore neither has the office position,” wrote Lindquist’s chief of staff.

Washam tried again, sending another letter to Lindquist. He demanded a personal reply.

“You are denying Justice to the property taxpayers of Pierce County,” Washam wrote. Lindquist didn’t respond.

Washam sent more letters to the governor, the attorney general, every member of the Legislature and the U.S. Attorney’s office. They were largely ignored.

On March 16, 2010, Barnes resigned from the assessor’s office after 30 years of service.

“The working conditions in the Assessor-Treasurer’s Office have been intolerable for more than a year,” she wrote. “The only reasonable choice you leave me with is to depart employment.”

Washam, asked for comment at the time by The News Tribune, said he hadn’t tried to make Barnes’ life difficult or force her to resign. Ugas said her working conditions were the same as those of any other employee.

‘LAWFUL ORDERS’

The spring and summer of 2010 saw the results of multiple investigations tied to Washam’s office.

The first came from the whistleblower complaint filed by Ugas against Barnes, conducted by independent investigator Deborah Diamond. The investigation explored the physical-inspection issue and concluded Madsen flouted state law – a fact known for five years.

It also found Barnes had not violated the law.

“Ms. Barnes obeyed what she had been assured were the lawful orders of her superiors,” the findings stated.

Washam cherry-picked the investigation for publicity. On one hand, he issued a news release, saying the findings confirmed his allegations regarding physical inspections.

On the other hand, he and Ugas picked the findings apart, saying the investigator wasn’t a lawyer and had no legal training. Her conclusions about Barnes couldn’t be trusted.

The next set of results, released in May 2010, came from independent investigator Kent Nakamura, who found Washam abused his authority, retaliated against employees, wasted public funds and used his elected position as “a pulpit of defiance.”

The report added that Washam refused interviews (he demanded questions in writing), and refused to provide requested documents – all violations of county policy.

Washam denied all the allegations in the Nakamura report. He told The News Tribune it was based on “bogus whistleblower complaints,” and called it “totally without merit.”

FORWARD INTO THE PAST

Undaunted by past refusals, Washam again asked state officials to conduct a criminal investigation of the physical-inspection issue. He sent his request to the governor and the attorney general in July 2010.

He started hosting weekly talks at the Pierce County Annex, attended by a small group of supporters. He designated some of them as his “Independent Citizens Commission.”

During the meetings, Washam provided numerous handouts and discussed the physical-inspection issue, along with his various attempts to seek a criminal probe.

Tacoma resident Robert Henkel, 80, counts himself among Washam’s supporters. He has attended several of the assessor’s meetings. Along with seven other citizens, he signed a statement urging state officials to investigate the physical-inspection issue.

“I’ll tell you, he’s a good one at digging out information and finding out what’s going on,” Henkel said of Washam. “I really have to admire his ability to dig out the facts.”

Henkel keeps an eye on county government: he served as a local drainage district commissioner in the late 1980s. He remembers pointless inefficiencies and sloppy record-keeping, and no one in the good-old-boy network caring enough to do anything about it.

He has worked with Washam on past issues, including the 2005 effort to recall Madsen.

A retired math teacher, Henkel spent the last 23 years of his career teaching in the Franklin Pierce School District. He admires Washam’s determination, and the self-taught legal expertise that earned him a favorable ruling on recall law in 2000.

“I think his best quality is the knowledge he’s gained from the work he’s done,” Henkel said. “Any time a ‘pro se’ can go to the Supreme Court and win a case, I think he’s got some pretty good knowledge.”

‘INCOMPETENT’

Results of the fourth investigation of Washam’s conduct in office were released in August.

The investigator, Donald Heyrich, found Washam had retaliated against Jim Hall by disciplining and demoting him.

The report noted Washam refused an interview and insisted that all questions be submitted in writing. Heyrich noted that written questions and answers were not conducive to an effective investigation.

Washam posted the Heyrich report on his website. He listed the cost of the investigation ($15,581) and refused requests from The News Tribune for comment.

On Sept. 2, he demanded a state investigation again, via letters to the governor and the state attorney general’s office. He included signatures from members of his citizens commission, adding their voices to his own.

Customary refusals followed. State officials cited prior opinions from the Pierce County prosecutor.

At a public meeting on Sept. 28, Washam denounced Horne and Lindquist for their refusals to investigate.

“They were both incompetent when they made that decision,” he said.

On Oct. 4, Ugas filed a criminal complaint with Sheriff Pastor, demanding an investigation of Madsen and Barnes. On Oct. 11, Ugas sent a letter to Pastor, asking when the investigation would begin. On Oct. 12, Ugas sent a letter to Lindquist, describing his duty to investigate. On Oct. 13, Pastor said he would assess the information, with assistance from the prosecutor’s office.

On Oct. 14, Doug Vanscoy, Lindquist’s chief civil deputy, sent a note to Ugas, reminding him of the past responses from the prosecutor’s office to earlier calls for investigation.

Vanscoy also observed Washam was trying to link the call for an investigation to a former employee of the assessor’s office who had complained about Washam’s conduct. That fact raised “the question of impropriety, if not worse,” Vanscoy said.

On Oct. 20, Ugas filed a recall petition against Lindquist. The prosecutor called it frivolous.

Ugas told The News Tribune the petition was his idea, but said he’d “picked Washam’s brain” regarding recall law. The petition included 624 pages of material previously compiled and published by Washam. Ugas said he’d assembled the petition on his own time.

Ugas repeated the claim during an Oct. 21 telephone interview with KOMO radio host John Carlson. Ugas said he had taken vacation time to put the petition together – he said he was on vacation at that moment. Carlson asked whether Ugas was calling from home. Ugas admitted he was calling from the assessor’s office.

DAMAGE CLAIMS

Washam had been fighting a paper war for his entire term. The costs of investigations of his conduct had climbed over $100,000, with more bills to come.

Aftershocks struck. The first damage claim against Washam was filed Oct. 15. Mark Williams, the supervisor kicked out of his office to make room for Washam, sought damages of $750,000.

The second damage claim, filed by Hall, arrived Nov. 3, seeking between $800,000 and $1.2 million in damages. Washam called it “devoid of any merit.”

The News Tribune has learned that more damage claims could emerge in the coming days, setting the stage for multiple lawsuits and exposing taxpayers to potential payouts.

At an Oct. 27 meeting of the County Council, Washam told members he refused to submit to a routine county performance audit. Washam said he wouldn’t allow a “piecemeal” inquiry. He chided Councilman Dick Muri for raising the issue.

After the meeting, Muri, chairman of the council’s performance audit committee, called the refusal bizarre.

“He can’t say no,” Muri said. “Everybody’s accountable to somebody. You cannot go off and bankrupt this county. We have somebody who’s gonna cost the taxpayers a lot of money, and he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

EPILOGUE

Robin Farris, a Puyallup resident and retired lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, noticed news coverage of Washam as summer gave way to fall. Her mother had once mentioned him in passing, how the guy was always running for something or other.

Farris grew curious. She read the postings on Washam’s website and other news stories. She’d never met him or seen him, but the more she read, the more annoyed she became. His arguments ran in circles. His responses to employee complaints made little sense. No one was doing anything about it.

She noticed Washam had tried to recall others in the past. Farris wondered what it would take to recall him. Research gave her answers. She visited the county auditor’s office and gathered the forms. She talked to a local attorney.

On Oct. 16, she built a website and labeled it, “Committee to Recall Dale Washam, Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer,” calling herself the chairman.

For the first few days, the site was a bare-bones affair: a front page, a statement on recall law, her name and little more. There was no immediate publicity.

Farris was a late riser, accustomed to working at night. One morning in mid-October, a week after her website was published, she heard a knock at her front door.

Bleary, in no mood for visitors, she peeked out from her window. She saw an older man standing on the doorstep – a man with a head of perfectly combed white hair, wearing a blazer.

She didn’t answer the door. The man went away. She guessed at who he was, but she wasn’t sure.

On Oct. 29, she filed her recall paperwork. A News Tribune story followed. Farris saw that Washam’s website announced a public meeting Nov. 1 on South Hill. She decided to attend.

She arrived slightly late, and saw a man standing in front of a group of about five people.

His white hair was perfectly combed. He wore a gray suit.

She recognized him: the man on the doorstep.

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

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