Report clears Pierce County’s HR boss

government: Complaint by Washam chief deputy alleged conspiracy

December 5, 2010 

The latest independent investigation tied to Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam concludes he’s not the victim of a conspiracy.

Spurred by a whistleblower complaint from Alberto Ugas, Washam’s chief deputy, the investigation found that Betsy Sawyers, county human resources director, didn’t do any of the following things:

 • She didn’t harass Washam for his religious beliefs.

 • She didn’t conspire with his employees to discredit him.

 • She didn’t manipulate findings of an earlier independent investigation.

 • She didn’t deny public records requested by Ugas.

The public bill for those findings: $5,869.50.

The investigation, conducted by Kirkland attorney Jim Webber, is the fifth tied to Washam since he took office in 2009. The new costs raise the tally for investigations and other legal bills to $108,634.13, according to county records.

Ugas did not respond Friday to a request for comment. His complaint complains about complaints against his boss.

Though Ugas filed the complaint, his allegations echoed statements by Washam, who has criticized human resources officials regularly over the past 20 months.

Washam contends that prior complaints from employees about his conduct were “bogus,” and human resources officials wrongly authorized subsequent investigations.

Three of those investigations led to findings that Washam retaliated against employees, wasted government resources and abused his power. The findings also noted that Washam hindered the investigations; he contends the investigations were biased and not objectively done.

The fourth investigation, an earlier whistleblower complaint also filed by Ugas, accused a former employee, Sally Barnes, of criminal misconduct. The investigation concluded that Barnes did nothing wrong.

Washam and Ugas disputed that finding. The latest investigation by Webber provides a partial footnote to the fourth investigation, while also addressing other topics.

FIRST FINDING

Ugas contended that Sawyers harassed Washam for using the word “God” in the workplace. “A clear case of religious persecution and harassment,” Ugas called it.

The allegation stems from a complaint made by seven assessor-treasurer employees in the early stages of Washam’s tenure. He regularly invoked God and insisted on moments of silence before all meetings, according to public records.

Sawyers and County Executive Pat McCarthy met with Washam in early 2009 and discussed the complaint, and urged him to restrain himself. That meeting, Ugas contended, constituted harassment of Washam.

“This allegation is unfounded,” Webber concluded. “Ms. Sawyers cautioned Mr. Washam about discussing religious views in the workplace, but did not at any time interfere with Mr. Washam’s ability to exercise his religious beliefs in his private life.

“She did not demean anyone’s religion and was clearly counseling Mr. Washam regarding appropriate management behavior. She was respectful at all times and did not engage in harassment.”

SECOND FINDING

Ugas accused Sawyers of colluding with employees and their union to “discredit” Washam by filing multiple “frivolous” complaints against him. Sawyers should have rejected the complaints and not allowed investigations to proceed, Ugas argued.

In an interview with Webber, Ugas cited an Aug. 13, 2009, meeting between employees and their union representatives, in which the process of filing complaints was discussed.

Webber said the meeting and statements by the union representative “do not by any stretch of the imagination support a finding or even a suspicion of collusion” and added that there was no proof of orchestrated involvement by Sawyers.

“This allegation is unfounded,” Webber wrote. “I found no indication that Ms. Sawyers solicited any complaints or conspired with union representatives. Further, the prior investigation reports demonstrate that the underlying complaints were not frivolous.

“It would have been improper for Ms. Sawyers to analyze the evidence herself as opposed to referring the matter for investigatory review.”

THIRD FINDING

Ugas accused Sawyers of “manipulating the findings” of an earlier investigation (the earlier whistleblower complaint filed by Ugas).

The earlier investigation, conducted by Deborah Diamond, went through several drafts, which Diamond submitted to county human resources officials for review before her investigation was complete. According to Webber’s report, human resources officials suggested correcting typos and formatting, and inserting page numbers.

“This allegation is unfounded,” Webber wrote. “Ms. Sawyers denies asking Ms. Diamond to modify any findings. Ms. Diamond states that no one at Pierce County did anything to influence her conclusions. Ms. Diamond’s report explains her findings and the bases for them; there is no indication that her report constitutes a cover-up or contains contrived conclusions.”

FOURTH FINDING

Ugas accused Sawyers of denying access to public records associated with the Diamond investigation. The allegation stems from a records request he filed in April 2010 with the human resources department and the county prosecutor.

Ugas received 1,983 pages of records from the human resources department, but some were withheld on the basis of public disclosure exemptions, according to Webber’s report.

The prosecutor withheld more pages (238) than the human resources department (99). Ugas argued that the discrepancy caused him to question Sawyers’ honesty.

“This allegation is unfounded,” Webber wrote. “There is no indication that Ms. Sawyers interfered in any way with the document production. Mr. Ugas’ reliance on a purported disparity is not persuasive because he fails to take into account reasonable and plain explanations for the difference between what was identified by the two different departments.”

Ugas also complained about the pace of public disclosure, saying human resources officials took too long to produce the records.

Webber’s report indicates Ugas received almost 2,000 pages of records from human resources over the course of three months, between mid-April and the end of July 2010.

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

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