Washam’s legal frays cost county treasure
Legal dominoes surrounding Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam are falling, and the bills are approaching the seven-figure mark.
County risk managers recently settled the second of five claims for damages filed by current and former Washam employees. Signed Dec. 23, and obtained by The News Tribune via public disclosure, the agreement pays $200,000 to Shellie Pollitt, a supervisor in Washam’s office.
An earlier claim filed by former Washam employee Mark Williams was settled last spring for $79,495.
The settlements add to a running tally that includes the costs of five internal investigations tied to Washam’s office ($73,040).
Separately, the county continues to pay outside attorneys (including Washam’s counsel) for services related to damage claim negotiations, a labor complaint and a continuing investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Collectively, those legal fees stand at $339,455, according to records obtained by The News Tribune.
The grand total, including investigation costs, legal fees and settlements: $691,990.
The number could climb soon. Three outstanding claims remain, seeking a collective total of $3.5 million. Attorneys for the county and the claimants have negotiated off and on for months, including a flurry of discussions over the past few weeks.
Pollitt’s claim, filed in January 2011, originally sought between $500,000 and $800,000 in damages. She cited retaliation and defamation by Washam and his chief deputy, Albert Ugas.
“We’re happy to reach resolution on the case,” said Jack Connelly, Pollitt’s attorney, who also represents the remaining claimants.
“(Pollitt) has been through a very difficult ordeal and hopefully one that won’t continue. I think there’s a recognition on the part of Pierce County that there were things going on in the office that shouldn’t have been going on, and they have to stop.”
Asked for comment Thursday, Washam replied with a written statement saying he was barred from participating in settlement negotiations. He noted Pollitt’s claim never became a formal lawsuit, which would have opened the door to discovery and argument.
Washam’s full statement:
“The $200,000 Risk Management settlement agreement signed by Mr. Maenhout for Pierce County with Ms. Pollitt, without a lawsuit ever being filed in court by Ms. Pollitt, so proper discovery could have been done in a Court of Law on Ms. Pollitt’s purported claims is something Dale Washam feels should have absolutely been done to determine the true facts regarding Ms. Pollitt’s claims.
“It is a fact, that Mr. Maenhout, Director of Risk Management, would not allow the Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam or his attorney Richard Wooster to take part in any settlement talks regarding Ms. Pollitt’s claims. Therefore, the settlement agreement signed by Mr. Maenhout for Pierce County with Ms. Pollitt was done without any input from the Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam or his attorney Richard Wooster.”
Mark Maenhout, county risk manager, confirmed Washam was not allowed to participate in settlement talks.
“We didn’t see that as being a productive piece of the negotiations,” Maenhout said Friday.
Washam, 73, a longtime activist and frequent candidate for public office over two decades, won the assessor’s seat in 2008 and took office in January 2009. His tenure has been marked by feuds with employees and county officials.
He has called repeatedly for a criminal investigation into the assessment practices of his predecessor, Ken Madsen, who used computer models to revalue some properties, instead of physical inspections required by state law.
Washam tried to recall Madsen on that basis in 2005. Madsen admitted to the practice in open court, but a Thurston County Superior Court judge rejected the recall petition, finding Madsen had a “legally cognizable justification” for his actions. It was the fifth time Washam had tried to recall an opponent who defeated him at the ballot.
After taking office, Washam resurrected the argument, saying he had discovered new evidence. He blamed employees for colluding with Madsen, accused them of criminal acts, and demoted those he deemed responsible.
His accusations prompted a series of complaints from employees, who accused him of retaliation and abuse. Multiple internal investigations followed. They concluded Washam committed various acts of misconduct.
Washam scoffed at the findings, and began calls for a criminal investigation into past practices at the assessor’s office.
Through 2009 and 2010, he sent repeated demands to local and state authorities, including county prosecutors, the sheriff, the Tacoma police chief, the state auditor, the state attorney general and the governor.
The leaders declined to support Washam’s demands, telling him investigation was unnecessary and wasteful; the only remedy was gradual correction of property values over time.
Washam disagreed, and continued to lobby despite multiple refusals.
He also used his official website to criticize other officials and the complaints against him. His chief deputy, Ugas, relying on arguments developed by Washam, filed a recall petition against Prosecutor Mark Lindquist that later was thrown out of court.
The controversy spawned a recall campaign against Washam. The legal petition was approved in local court and later by the Washington State Supreme Court. Recall backers collected more than 64,000 signatures last summer, but narrowly missed the legal threshold of 65,495 that would have triggered an election.
Though the recall campaign fell short, officials from the Justice Department jumped into the fray last October, announcing an investigation into potential civil rights violations at Washam’s office. That inquiry, which remains active, stemmed from an earlier finding by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that Washam had violated an employee’s civil rights.
The federal investigation has added to the county’s legal bills.
Investigators have interviewed various employees of the assessor’s office, including Washam, and the county has provided legal representation throughout the process. Such legal services would typically be handled by county attorneys, but Washam’s clashes with the prosecutor’s office created potential conflicts of interest.
Yet another legal matter remains unsettled. An unidentified Pierce County resident filed an ethics complaint against Washam in August, accusing him of various acts of misconduct. The county ethics commission voted to send the matter to an investigative hearing, originally set for Oct. 13. Multiple delays postponed the hearing, which is now set for March 28.
Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 firstname.lastname@example.org