Special Reports

Choices at trial: Incompetence or conspiracy

Here’s a $5 million question: Was Phil Knudsen fired for talking too much or doing too little?

The answer could come around Jan. 30 of next year, when Knudsen’s lawsuit against the City of Tacoma is scheduled for trial in U.S. District Court.

The suit pits a widow trying to clear her late husband’s name against a city defending charges of discrimination and conspiracy. Depositions recently entered in the court file reveal a government poisoned by office politics, paranoia and long-held grudges.

Knudsen, the city’s former human resources director, died in August, felled by lung cancer slightly more than a year after his firing, and eight months after he filed suit. His wife, Nancy, is proceeding with the case.

The city claims Knudsen was fired for incompetence. Knudsen’s suit claims he was dismissed for being outspoken, and because a trio of City Council members wanted him gone.

The depositions, part of a lengthy discovery process, include statements from current and former City Council members and high-ranking officials, as well as rank-and-file employees in the Human Resources Department.

In testimony, by-the-bookers and rule-benders collide, airing opinions typically hidden from public view. Debates over hiring practices turn into delicate discussions of diversity – whether Knudsen cared about it enough, and whether former City Manager Jim Walton cared about it too much.

Former Councilwoman Sharon McGavick characterizes Knudsen as “a good old boy,” prone to off-color comments that offended those around him.

Mayor Bill Baarsma discusses his strained relationship with former City Councilman Kevin Phelps, and private meetings with Knudsen, who complained to the mayor that three council members were out to get him.

Councilman Rick Talbert admits not trusting Knudsen, and shunning him, believing that he was leaking information about labor negotiations to the press.

Walton admits feeling the City Council didn’t treat him fairly during his tenure, and adds that he made a mistake by not firing Knudsen sooner. He complains that Knudsen tampered with hiring processes.

Throughout the depositions, the specter of former Police Chief David Brame floats in the margins. The city says the case is not about Brame, who fatally shot his wife, Crystal, and himself more than two years ago.

“It is the defendant’s position that Mr Knudsen’s termination had nothing to do with the Brame incident or anything related to the incident,” said Assistant City Attorney Jean Homan, who is defending the case, and declined further comment.

Knudsen’s attorney, Paul Lindenmuth, disagrees.

“You have to look at the entire circumstances and the extreme emotions that were occurring at the time and the reasons for inappropriate motivations to come into play,” he said. “It’s very clear that the beginning of the end of his career as an employee with the City of Tacoma began with the April 25 meeting.”

The meeting, a controversial milestone in the Brame scandal, is still a disputed topic. The day before the shooting, Knudsen and Assistant Human Resources Director Mary Brown met with then-City Attorney Robin Jenkinson and Assistant City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli to discuss media reports about Brame’s contentious divorce.

Knudsen and Brown argued that they discussed placing Brame on administrative leave, which would have meant taking Brame’s badge and the gun he used to shoot his wife. Jenkinson and Pauli said the gun and badge were never mentioned.

The two parties never agreed on what was said during the meeting, though depositions in Knudsen’s case discuss subsequent internal efforts to reconcile their stories.

The controversy over the meeting is a key argument in Knudsen’s suit. Lindenmuth hopes to show a link between the meeting and Knudsen’s firing.

The city will argue that no link exists – but Lindenmuth can offer some ammo, including public statements from Phelps.

After the details of the meeting became public, Phelps announced that he believed Jenkinson’s account of the meeting, that some of the parties had to be lying, and whoever was lying deserved termination.

In his deposition, Phelps admitted making the comments, and added that he believed Knudsen had leaked information about the April 25 meeting to The News Tribune.

He was wrong, as it turned out. In a separate deposition, Brown specifically admitted that she was the source of The News Tribune’s information.

Phelps, Talbert and McGavick all acknowledged in depositions that they later refused to attend executive sessions where Knudsen was present, because they believed he was leaking information about labor negotiations to the media.

Court records also include typewritten notes from Knudsen, describing a June 2, 2003, meeting with Walton. Knudsen writes that Walton told him, “three of the City Council wanted me gone. I asked him who, and he told me Phelps, Talbert and McGavick.”

The city’s defense is likely to include Walton’s denials of such direct statements and his disappointment with Knudsen’s performance in other areas. Walton was impatient with Knudsen’s handling of a plan to increase employee diversity, and believed Knudsen tampered with a hiring decision by changing the “pass point” on tests taken by prospective employees.

Court documents show that Knudsen authorized changing the pass point, which Walton saw as a serious transgression. Lindenmuth will argue that Knudsen did it to broaden the pool of potential applicants in the interest of diversity, an argument Walton greeted with skepticism at the time.

A flurry of motions from Homan still awaits action in court, along with replies from Lindenmuth. Homan argues for dismissing elements of Knudsen’s claims. Lindenmuth has fired off a series of responses in opposition. The motions are in the hands of federal Judge Franklin Burgess.

The back-and-forth depositions include a sobering statement from Steve Marcotte, the city’s finance director. While Marcotte calls Knudsen “a capable HR director,” he deplores the condition of the Human Resources Department.

“It didn’t work well before him, and it didn’t work well with him, and it hasn’t worked well since he left,” Marcotte said in a sworn statement. “We have, in my judgment, as close to a nonfunctioning HR department as I’ve ever encountered in my 30 years.”

Sean Robinson 253-597-8486