County worker files claim for $750,000

The string of complaints and official findings of misconduct against Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam has reached a new level.

Mark Williams, an employee demoted by Washam, has filed a $750,000 damage claim against the county, citing retaliation, violation of rights and defamation by Washam over a two-year period.

“He took my office, my position, my duties, my authority, my pay and admonished me repeatedly about productivity, dishonesty and corruption,” Williams’ claim states.

The claim, filed Thursday, also cites similar actions by Alberto Ugas, deputy assessor-treasurer, who was promoted to the position in May 2009.

Asked for comment on the claim Friday, Washam did not respond directly. His assistant, Gretchen Borck, replied to an email from The News Tribune.

“We have no knowledge of such a claim,” Borck wrote.

The claim – the prelude to a lawsuit – cites a series of events dating to early 2009, when Washam’s elected term began. Williams, 52, a 20-year employee of the office, supervised 20 people in the residential appraisal division. He since has been ousted from his office (Washam now occupies it). In December 2009, he was demoted and relieved of supervisory duties. His salary has been cut by $10,000.

His claim states he was told he could not remain in his supervisory position because of the influence he had with staff members.

Williams wrote that reported accusations of misconduct from Washam were untrue and demoralizing.

“Mr. Washam’s constant references to me and my staff as corrupt and posting reports on the I nternet on the official website suggesting my division was engaged in fraud and falsifying public documents was unbearable.

Joan Mell, the attorney representing Williams, said her client filed the claim as a matter of survival.

“Mr. Williams is trying to stay afloat in an environment that’s fraught with controversy and criticism – and not just your run-of-the-mill attacks, but an active effort to crucify him,” she said. “He has been a public servant committed to doing the job for 20 years and has been loyal and responsive to the policy preferences of multiple administrations. He’s certainly not committed criminal wrongdoing, and he certainly has not defrauded the public.”

Williams is one of several employees who have complained about Washam’s behavior since taking office.

The new assessor entered office with a cause: His predecessor, Ken Madsen, had relied on statistical computer models to calculate some property assessments, instead of the physical inspections required by state law.

Washam, charging falsification of official records, tried to recall Madsen from office in 2005, arguing that the statistical method equated to official malfeasance. A judge disagreed, dismissed the recall petition and ruled Madsen had a “legally cognizable justification” to use the statistical approach.

Since taking office, Washam has resurrected the argument, repeatedly calling for a criminal investigation into the actions of Madsen’s administration. County prosecutors have repeatedly refused, citing the failed recall petition and recent findings by county performance auditors that concluded taxpayers suffered no harm from Madsen’s approach.

Washam has persisted. His actions have spawned multiple complaints by employees, three independent investigations and three findings of misconduct that conclude Washam has retaliated against employees, abused his power and wasted government resources.

The costs of the investigations exceeds $100,000.

Williams’ damage claim cites a meeting with Washam and several supervisors in January 2009. Washam spoke of the physical inspection issue and chided employees for their involvement.

“You people should have been whistleblowers even if you lost your job or quit over it,” Washam reportedly said. “Where were you when I was fighting this office during the recall? None of you supported me.”

The claim states that Washam took Williams’ office in May 2009, and designated “discussion areas” as the only permissible locations for conversation.

“Any staff discussions had to occur in the open in a specially designated discussion area outside his office,” Williams’ claim states. “Any meeting could not exceed two minutes in duration. He put up mirrors in his office to allow him to see out and check on staff when his back was turned away from the door.”

Washam began using the assessor’s official website to stump for his cause, repeating his allegations of criminal misconduct by staff members. Williams’ claim expresses concern for the safety of appraisers going into the field.

“The hostility Mr. Washam and Mr. Ugas were generating against the property appraisers was and still is frightening,” Williams wrote.