Editor’s note: This story was reported in collaboration with Austin Jenkins at public radio’s Northwest News Network.
A Washington state trooper has accused a leader in the State Patrol’s aviation unit of ordering staff to illegally delete public records and lying to the Governor’s Office about the availability of planes.
Trooper Ryan Santhuff makes the allegations in a $5 million tort claim filed against the state in February. Santhuff contends the alleged incidents and retaliation from supervisors contributed to a “work environment that no reasonable person could tolerate,” according to a copy of the claim released through a public records request.
Santhuff also alleges in the claim that Lt. Jim Nobach, a top State Patrol pilot, and an office assistant engaged in sexually inappropriate conduct together at the office in 2016.
A 2016 internal investigation by the captain who oversees the aviation department found the allegations that Nobach lied to the Governor’s Office and retaliated against Santhuff to be unfounded. A summary of the investigation was obtained by The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network on Tuesday.
Capt. Johnny Alexander could not determine if Nobach “deliberately directed pilots to delete emails to avoid a pending Public Disclosure Request,” records show, although Alexander cast doubt on those allegations by saying Nobach had “no clear motive” to skirt the records request and that his own email retention followed policy. The Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office also declined to file criminal charges related to the records allegations, according to the report.
The State Patrol also investigated the accusation of inappropriate sexual behavior, and Nobach was counseled as a result, according to records from the investigation. In addition, the entire aviation unit was ordered to take a sexual harassment training course.
A tort claim is a precursor to a lawsuit. People who intend to sue the state must first file such a claim and then wait at least 60 days before filing a lawsuit. The 60-day period has passed, but there was no record Thursday of Santhuff filing suit in a Washington state court.
The state also has not settled with Santhuff, according to Linda Kent, a spokeswoman for the Department of Enterprise Services.
Santhuff and his attorney Daniel Cairns declined to comment for this article. Santhuff remains on the force but has been transferred to a highway patrol unit in Olympia. Nobach is at his same post in the aviation unit.
“We are aware of the claims and have investigated them,” Kyle Moore, a spokesman for the State Patrol, said in a written statement. “While I can’t speak about current claims, I can say that we will thoroughly, fairly and transparently defend the organization ...”
The State Patrol maintains a fleet of small airplanes used by state officials and agencies for things like travel, traffic patrols and firefighting assistance.
One of the most frequent fliers is Gov. Jay Inslee, who uses the planes to hop around Washington.
In his tort claim, Santhuff alleges that Nobach denied a request from the governor’s office to use a twin-engine King Air for a 2014 trip, saying it was under maintenance. In reality, Santhuff’s legal complaint says, the King Air was “air-worthy and had recently flown a test flight.”
“Based on what Lt. Nobach said, the Governor and the WSP were discussing budget for the aviation section, and Lt. Nobach wanted the Governor to feel pressure to increase funding for the costly repair of the aircraft,” the claim states.
Also in 2014, Santhuff accuses Nobach of directing troopers to delete public records after a disclosure request was filed related to May Day protests in Olympia. The State Patrol often provides support to local law enforcement during May Day protests although it did not that year.
“Not only did Lt. Nobach direct staff to delete emails, he also instructed them on ways to remove all copies of these emails from hidden folders on the computers and servers, essentially scrubbing the network of relevant documents,” the claim states.
Finally, Santhuff alleges Nobach in 2016 made sexually suggestive comments to his assistant during a meeting. Santhuff said the assistant also massaged Nobach’s shoulders and rubbed her breasts on his head while making a suggestive comment of her own. Nobach did not return a request for comment on Thursday and his assistant could not be reached.
The tort claims states Santhuff reported all three alleged incidents in 2016 and that Nobach subsequently “began a campaign of retaliation against Trooper Santhuff” that included implicit threats, exclusion from meetings, ostracization and lies about Santhuff’s job performance.
Many of Santhuff’s allegations are disputed by the State Patrol’s internal investigation.
In his conclusion, Alexander said Nobach had not treated Santhuff differently than co-workers and did not retaliate against the trooper.
While Santhuff claimed Nobach hindered opportunities for his advancement as a pilot, Alexander said Santhuff received more training flight hours than any other pilot in his section, according to the investigation.
Alexander also found Nobach did not mislead the Governor’s Office.
“Appropriate and timely notices regarding King Air unavailability due to scheduled maintenance were provided to all transportation stakeholders months in advance,” Alexander wrote in his report.
Alexander found ascertaining the truth of the allegations regarding the records request to be more difficult. He wrote that witnesses provided inconsistent and inaccurate statements and sometimes “lacked independent recollection of critical facts to prove the allegation.”
Some witnesses told the State Patrol that Nobach had simply ordered them to do routine maintenance on their email inboxes by deleting unimportant messages as allowed by agency policies. Nobach also denied trying to delete records, according to the investigation.
He told investigators that he ordered pilots to transfer “all relevant mission-related information” to a central computer storage location to make processing disclosure requests easier.
Nobach then said pilots should delete duplicate copies of records to increase storage space, records from the internal investigation show.
Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Inslee, said Tuesday the Attorney General’s Office plans to investigate the claim, which she said in an email “is pretty standard for torts.”
She did not comment on the substance of Santhuff’s allegations or the State Patrol investigation, other than to note that Alexander couldn’t determine whether some of the allegations were true.