A Pierce County sheriff’s deputy who clashed with Prosecutor Mark Lindquist over text messages on his mobile phone has filed a $6.5 million damage claim with the county’s risk management division.
The claim from Glenda Nissen, filed Nov. 2 as the prelude to a lawsuit, adds to the flood of legal troubles swamping Lindquist’s administration. Nissen is represented by Fircrest attorney Joan Mell, who also represents retired Deputy Mike Ames, who filed a damage claim of his own Oct. 8.
Nissen’s claim cites the findings of a recently released whistleblower investigation of Lindquist’s office. The investigation, conducted by outside attorney Mark Busto, uncovered new details tied to incidents dating to 2011, after Nissen, an 18-year-veteran of the sheriff’s office, settled an earlier claim.
The 2011 settlement stipulated Nissen would not face retaliation from county officials. The new claim says that promise has been broken.
“Mark Lindquist and his deputies breached the County’s settlement agreement with Glenda Nissen, which promises Det. Nissen will not be retaliated against for bringing forward her claims,” the damage claim states.
“Pierce County has continued to present Det. Nissen in a false light, and has retaliated against her in violation of her free speech rights, including her rights to seek redress and due process.”
The News Tribune sought comment from Lindquist. His assistant, Heather Songer, responded with a statement from the prosecutor’s civil division: “Assistant Civil Chief Denise Greer gave legal advice to safeguard our ability to prosecute child sexual abuse cases and to protect the county from civil litigation. The advice was not intended to be publicized. We’re confident we’ll prevail in any lawsuit.”
The whistleblower findings show that prosecutors tried to blackball Nissen after she was assigned in 2015 to investigate sexual assault cases against child victims. High-ranking prosecutors ordered subordinates not to speak with Nissen or use the evidence she gathered, according to records; subordinates protested, saying the directive was unprecedented and could put child victims at risk.
The findings also reveal new details of Lindquist’s attempts to focus on Nissen as the sole suspect in a 2010 death threat against one of his employees. Lindquist’s personal attorney was looped into some of those conversations, according to records.
Initially, Nissen was identified as a suspect in the death threat case. She has always denied involvement and was never charged.
The case had been sent to an outside prosecutor’s office because of conflicts of interest.
PROSECUTOR ORDER: DON’T SPEAK TO NISSEN
In March 2015, the sheriff’s office assigned Nissen to investigate sexual-assault cases. She applied with encouragement from her supervisors, according to Undersheriff Rob Masko, who is quoted in the whistleblower report.
Such cases are handled by the prosecutor’s Special Assault Unit, a group of deputy prosecutors and forensic interviewers who handle sexual-assault cases involving child victims.
The whistleblower investigation states that deputy prosecutor Denise Greer, a high-ranking member of the prosecutor’s civil division, called Masko and asked him to reconsider Nissen’s assignment.
Masko declined, the report states; he said Nissen was ethical and did good work.
Greer was “very disappointed,” the report states. Two weeks later, she repeated her request to Masko, who again declined.
Greer said the prosecutor’s office “couldn’t charge (Nissen’s) cases,” the report states. Masko stuck by his decision: Nissen would work the cases.
Greer then met with prosecutors from the special assault team and issued a series of directives: Prosecutors and interviewers were ordered to have no contact with Nissen in person, and any emails with Nissen would have to be approved by supervisors.
Prosecutors were ordered to watch Nissen’s interactions with child interviewers, but not to speak to her.
“WE DON’T WANT HER TO KNOW”
One deputy prosecutor, Heather DeMaine, protested, according to records. She told Greer the directives were unprecedented in her 12 years of experience. Why was she supposed to watch Nissen when no other detective was treated in this manner?
Greer replied that the restrictions were necessary because “Nissen could not be trusted,” the report states. She added that DeMaine was supposed to treat the underlying criminal cases, “as if Nissen’s aspect of the investigation didn’t happen.”
DeMaine and the interviewers were “very upset and concerned that the restrictions would put their cases and the child victims at risk,” the report states. “It seemed to DeMaine that the (prosecutor’s) office was retaliating against Nissen to make her ineffective so that the Sheriff’s Office would take her off SAU cases.”
DeMaine said she asked Greer what she was supposed to do if Nissen asked about the unusual treatment.
“Don’t answer the question,” Greer replied, according to the whistleblower report. “We don’t want her to know — we don’t want you to tip her off.”
Dissatisfied, DeMaine called deputy prosecutor John Sheeran, another high-ranking Lindquist staffer, and told him she would not follow Greer’s directive.
Sheeran’s answer, according to the whistleblower report: “When you are in a position of leadership, sometimes you’re asked to do things that make you uncomfortable.”
Another meeting with the special assault team, again led by Greer, took place in April 2015. The orders regarding Nissen were reinforced, according to records.
Lindquist said he was “out of the loop” on the Nissen restrictions when he was asked by Busto, the whistleblower investigator.
Greer told the investigator that she, Sheeran and Dawn Farina, Lindquist’s chief of staff, developed the restrictions because of Nissen’s prior suit against the county, and concerns that Nissen would claim retaliation.
Greer acknowledged that the prosecutor’s office had never imposed similar restrictions on a law enforcement officer, but added that the prosecutor’s office hadn’t been sued by an officer before.
RESTRICTIONS TIED TO TEXT MESSAGE FIGHT
Nissen’s earlier legal actions involved a dispute over text messages on Lindquist’s personal mobile phone. She believed the prosecutor disparaged her in the messages, and tried to obtain them via public disclosure.
Lindquist argued that the messages were entirely private, and immune from disclosure. In August, the Washington state Supreme Court ruled that the messages could be public records if they pertained to public business, and ordered Lindquist to review the messages and make that determination.
To date, Lindquist has not done so; the case has been returned to a lower court for further argument. The county has paid outside attorneys $315,945 to defend the case.
The text message argument grew out of a criminal investigation of a death threat mailed in 2010 to deputy prosecutor Mary Robnett, then the chief criminal deputy in the prosecutor’s office, and one of Lindquist’s most trusted staffers.
Initially, the sheriff’s office identified Nissen as a possible suspect because of an email she wrote to The News Tribune in the same time frame that criticized Lindquist.
Nissen admitted sending the critical email; she disclosed it to her supervisors the next day. She denied any knowledge of the mailed threat letter.
Investigators found no forensic evidence to prove otherwise. The letter had a Seattle postmark; Nissen lived in Kitsap County. A DNA test of the envelope revealed a partial sample tied to a male; Nissen is female. The investigative findings were sent to an outside prosecutor’s office, which declined to charge Nissen.
Nevertheless, prosecutors barred Nissen from entry to their offices in 2011, which prompted Nissen’s original damage claim, a settlement of $39,500, and a stipulation that she would not face further retaliation.
LINDQUIST SPOKE OF FIRING SHERIFF’S ATTORNEY
The whistleblower investigation adds new details regarding the death-threat investigation and Lindquist’s involvement. It notes that Lindquist pressed another sheriff’s detective, Denny Wood, to provide information that would show whether another deputy prosecutor, Lisa Wagner, was leaking information to Nissen. Wood declined.
Lindquist told the whistleblower investigator his only concern was to find who sent the death threat. Robnett told a different story, citing Lindquist’s concern about leaks.
“Robnett described Lindquist’s insistence on finding Nissen’s information source as off-putting, misdirected and very strong — ‘not the way a prosecutor would talk to experienced detectives,’ ” the report states.
A separate finding notes that the sheriff’s office received a tip about another possible death-threat suspect in late 2011, but Lindquist discouraged investigators from focusing on anyone but Nissen.
The report quotes Craig Adams, former legal adviser to Sheriff Paul Pastor. Adams said he was called into a meeting with Lindquist, Farina, and other prosecutors from the civil division, and asked to disclose information about the new suspect.
Adams refused, saying his communications with the sheriff were privileged. Lindquist then dismissed Adams, called Pastor into the meeting and asked Pastor to waive confidentiality. The sheriff refused.
According to the report, Lindquist’s personal attorney, who was representing him in the phone-records case, attended the meeting by telephone.
“Adams said that Lindquist and the others were very upset at the existence of another suspect that could exonerate Nissen,” the report states.
Lindquist subsequently suggested that Adams should be reassigned or fired, according to the report. Adams, aware of Lindquist’s anger, later left the sheriff’s office and took another position as a county court commissioner.
“I find that Lindquist sought to focus the (sheriff’s) investigation of the Robnett death threat on Nissen and away from other possible suspects,” the whistleblower report states.
“And, Lindquist attempted to secure evidence during the investigation that Wagner supplied information about the (prosecutor’s office) to Nissen.”