Federal investigators say Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam discriminated against his employees by retaliating against them after they complained about his behavior.
For that offense, Washam and his employees will be required to attend training sessions on policies regarding discrimination, and the proper response to employee complaints about it.
A lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court marks the conclusion of a yearlong investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into alleged civil-rights violations at Washam's office.
The suit names Pierce County as a defendant, but it’s already over. The court case includes a settlement agreed to after months of negotiation between county leaders and federal officials.
No trial will follow. The county faces no financial penalties. The only outcome is immediate training for all employees at the assessor’s office, including Washam and his chief deputy, Albert Ugas.
"What it basically says is we’re going to provide some supplemental training and some protections on retaliation at the assessor-treasurer's office," said Mike Patterson, the attorney who represented the county in the federal probe. "Washam and Ugas are required not to retaliate against individuals who complained or participated in the Department of Justice investigation. That’s sort of the essence of it."
Washam gave a short statement Friday in response to a request from The News Tribune.
“Since I am not a party to this action, I have not been furnished copies of any pleadings or other documents,” the statement said. “Your article is the first time I am made aware that Pierce County and the Department of Justice have been engaged in months of negotiations, as you put it. It would not be honest for me to comment on something I know nothing about.”
Washam may not have known the terms of the settlement, but he knew about the federal investigation and its scope; investigators and Patterson interviewed him at length last fall. Washam wrote letters to Patterson’s office complaining about the process.
The federal complaint marks the fifth finding of misconduct and retaliation by Washam since he took office in 2009. Complaints from his staff members spawned a series of investigations, damage claims and settlement payouts to current and former employees over the past three years. The settlements – five in all – add up to $1.13 million. The county spent an additional $412,000 on investigation costs and attorney fees.
Federal officials released a statement Friday that described the settlement agreement as a strong signal.
“This consent decree sends the important message that discrimination and retaliation will not be tolerated,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general. “I am pleased that we were able to work with the county to arrive at a resolution that will put mechanisms in place to prevent and correct discrimination and retaliation in the workplace.”
It’s tough talk, but that’s about it. The agreement states that the county must revise its anti-discrimination policies and submit them to federal officials for review and approval within 30 days.
It also states that all employees of the assessor’s office will receive training in the next 60 days. All employees, including elected officials and their appointees, are required to attend.
That includes Washam and Ugas. Whether they will attend training is an open question. In the past, both men have refused to comply with county directives.
The county can’t make them go, and can’t sanction them if they refuse. Leaders say state laws and local ordinances provide little authority to sanction elected officials.
“(Washam) hasn’t committed a crime,” County Executive Pat McCarthy said Friday. “He’s done a number of things that had a monetary impact on the citizens of Pierce County. We’ve had to pay employees for the discrimination and retaliation that Mr. Washam has imposed, and that’s an unfortunate situation.”
The wording of the federal agreement underscores the point. It’s both stern and impotent.
It asks county leaders for a clear statement that, “all elected and appointed officials are strongly encouraged to comply with the EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity)
policy and be subject to appropriate disciplinary or corrective action for noncompliance.”
The federal complaint restates circumstances covered in earlier investigations. They center on Sally Barnes, the former administrative officer of the assessor’s office and a 30-year employee. She resigned in 2010, citing mistreatment and retaliation by Washam. The federal investigation stemmed from a complaint Barnes filed.
The controversy surrounding Washam stems from his long-running demand for a criminal investigation of past practices at the assessor’s office – a demand repeatedly rejected as wasteful and unnecessary by various county leaders, including the current and former prosecutors.
Washam faced a recall campaign last year that narrowly missed reaching the ballot. Two weeks ago, he announced he was running for re-election.
In March, the county’s Ethics Commission found Washam violated the county’s ethics code by using public resources for campaign purposes to unseat county Prosecutor Mark Lindquist. The prosecutor was one of many officials who did not support Washam’s calls for a criminal investigation.
Washam has challenged the commission’s ruling, which imposed a $500 fine. He contends the commission failed to issue its formal findings within 30 days after a hearing. Instead, the commission took 48 days. Washam says that delay violated his right to due process.
Also in March, County Council members passed a resolution declaring no confidence in Washam, and urging him to resign. It was a symbolic gesture. County leaders said state law gives them no power to do anything more. They relied on legal advice from Patterson.
“The current law simply handcuffs us as it relates to dealing with somebody like Dale,” Patterson said. “
Not everyone in county circles agrees. State Sen. Mike Carrell (R-Lakewood) has asked the state attorney general’s office for a formal opinion on the question.
The opinion request, filed in April, asks the attorney general to define the limits of RCW 36.29.090, a state law that allows suspension of a county treasurer.
Carrell said he filed the request to address an apparent hole in state law.
“I’m not trying to pile on,” he said in a recent interview. “I’ve never engaged in this issue. This is an extremely rare circumstance. Clearly there are people that for whatever reason, abuse power.”
Carrell noted that the matrix of state laws includes a process for removing judges who commit misconduct. Nothing on a similar scale applies to county officials. If current law gives no guidance, he said, the law might need revision.
“There isn’t a comparable means of impeaching or removing somebody at the local level,” he said. “I think we need to rectify that.”