In-depth Washam study necessary

November 14, 2010 

Writing a thorough story about the Pierce County assessor-treasurer – the last of a three-part series on today’s front page – was a no-brainer.

Three county investigations released in 13 months found that Dale Washam abused his power, wasted government resources and retaliated against employees who disagreed with him. Two employees have filed damage claims against the county. Taxpayers already have paid more than $100,000 and could be on the hook for millions.

We needed to give readers a closer look at what is going on. The harder decision was how much the stories should delve into Washam’s life before he took office, particularly his private life.

Just because we know something doesn’t mean we put it in the paper. Public figures are entitled to private lives. Deciding when to write about private matters comes down to relevance.

Are a person’s private actions relevant to their role as a public figure? Do readers – in this case, voters – need to know it? The answers are admittedly subjective, and other people might have decided differently.

We wrote about Washam’s past for three reasons.

First, many of the facts we uncovered contradicted information Washam gave to us and to voters over the years. As far as we can tell, he never served “several years in corporate management.” According to court records, he hadn’t come close to winning all of his cases in the 1980’s when he told us, “I didn’t lose.”

Second, much of what we found in Washam’s past belies the way he portrays himself to his constituents. The office mission statement that bears his signature says: “Our office staff will treat everyone with respect, compassion and dignity and will always be guided by the principles of fairness and honesty.” Our reporting found he cheated on his wife and lied to his employer. Four people filed harassment petitions against him, and four landlords evicted him for bad behavior.

Third, a look into Washam’s past reveals a disturbing pattern – over and over he latches onto a cause, determined to right a perceived wrong, and doesn’t care who he hurts in the process.

Sometimes it’s over the quality of printing on his fliers. Sometimes it’s the county’s missed physical inspections. In both of those cases Washam was right, but that wasn’t good enough.

In the former case, he came back to the store time after time, badgering a 25-year-old clerk for her address and calling her at home. In the latter, he’s been found to have mistreated the employees he supervises. The pattern demonstrates the kind of man we have elected our assessor-treasurer.

Frankly, The News Tribune fell short in not reporting more of these facts sooner.

That said, Washam should have had a stronger voice in these stories. He did not because he chose not to.

Reporter Sean Robinson first tried to talk to Washam in August, but was told he’d answer only written questions, per office policy.

That policy apparently had been in effect only since May. Before that – when our questions were more about missed physical inspections and less about Washam’s misdeeds – he had welcomed our reporters for lengthy in-person interviews.

We told Washam we would no longer be limited to written questions.

Robinson attended four of Washam’s public meetings and twice tried to question him afterward. The last attempt, on Nov. 1, ended with Washam calling him a “sleezeball,” and telling Robinson to leave him alone.

On Nov. 4, we had a letter delivered to Washam’s office requesting an in-person interview.

“We are assembling a story that examines your life and career,” I wrote. “It is lengthy and detailed. In addition to your tenure in office, it examines prior campaigns and various legal actions in which you have taken part over the years.

“You are a prominent figure in Pierce County politics. You have sought public attention for your causes, using the assessor-treasurer’s website and public meetings to promote your views. You have called on other local and state leaders to back you. We believe it is reasonable to chart the path that led you to the position where you stand today.”

A few hours later, he responded by letter: “I respectfully decline your invitation. However, I would direct your attention to the vast materials already provided to The News Tribune’s reporters and editors by the Assessor-Treasurer’s office in the years 2009 and 2010.”

The next day, Washam sent an e-mail offering to answer written questions.

By Friday afternoon, all the correspondence was posted on the assessor-treasurer website except for my final response.

“While e-mail is an efficient way to exchange facts,” I wrote, “an interview requires a back and forth that allows follow-up questioning and is critical to both parties gaining a clear understanding of the issues being discussed. We expect a public official such as yourself to respond spontaneously to questions … We have not been limited to e-mail interviews by any other public official and don’t want it to be our only form of communication with you.”

We also were concerned someone else would write the answers.

On Tuesday, I called to offer Washam a chance to read the stories before publication. We’d rather know of any concerns or errors before we publish a story, and we’d rather not surprise the subject.

Washam’s assistant, Gretchen Borck, said he wasn’t there. I told her Washam would need to come in Wednesday to read the stories.

“I will try now to get him,” she said. “If not, you’ll hear from him in the morning.”

Washam never returned the call.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434
karen.peterson@thenewstribune.com

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