Politics & Government

Another ruling of misconduct goes against Washam

Mark down another finding of official misconduct against Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam.

For the third time in 12 months, an independent investigator has found that Washam violated state and federal law by retaliating against an employee who disagreed with him.

The latest finding, based on Equal Employment Opportunity complaints filed by four employees, concludes that Washam retaliated against Jim Hall, a veteran appraiser. There were no findings regarding the other three employees.

Washam posted the findings on his website Monday. The News Tribune had requested the investigative report from the county human resources department. County officials had said the report would be disclosed Aug. 30, following notification of the affected individuals.

The posted report includes a cover letter from county human resources director Betsy Sawyers to Washam, warning him to avoid retaliation against employees. The warning is underlined in bold.

“Mr. Washam, I cannot overemphasize how critical it is that no further retaliation occurs to the complainant or any other employee,” Sawyers wrote. “Such behavior would not only again, violate the law, but it could again place the county under increased liability.”

The investigative report refers to Hall as “CE1”; Hall identified himself as CE1 in response to a News Tribune inquiry. He declined further comment.

The investigation, conducted by attorney Donald Heyrich, con- cludes that Hall was disciplined, demoted and given reduced duties because he participated in the investigation of an earlier EEO complaint filed by another employee.

“Based on all the evidence reviewed, I find that (Hall’s) participation in EEO complaints was a substantial factor in adverse employment imposed by Washam,” Heyrich wrote.

The cost of investigations tied to Washam’s conduct in office now stands at $67,171 – more than half of his annual $117,389 salary. In the past, he has called the investigations “bogus” and argued that they stem from employees abusing the complaint process to harass him.

Washam refused Monday afternoon to speak to The News Tribune. He was addressing a small group of people in a public meeting room in the Pierce County Annex, where his office is housed. He held a clipboard and wore a single rubber glove.

When a reporter arrived and sat in the audience, Washam abruptly ended the meeting, saying, “We’re done.”

He left quickly, and ignored questions. “Put it in writing,” he said, walking away.

A short time later, Washam sent an e-mail to The News Tribune, requesting questions submitted in writing. The News Tribune asked to speak to him directly. Washam did not respond.

Refusals and demands for written questions reflect standard practice by Washam and his inner circle. The methods cropped up in two earlier county investigations. Heyrich faced the same obstacles.

“Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam offered to participate in this investigation but only upon the submission of written questions and answers,” Heyrich wrote. “This offer was not accepted because written questions and answers are not conducive to an effective investigation.”

Heyrich also noted that Albert Ugas, deputy assessor-treasurer, and Gretchen Borck, Washam’s administrative assistant, did not respond to requests for interviews regarding the investigation.

“It is unclear whether they have refused to be interviewed or whether they have been forbidden from doing so by Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam,” Hey-rich wrote.

Records of all three investigations state that Borck refused to be interviewed. Ugas was interviewed in the first investigation, but refused interviews in the two more recent inquiries.

Heyrich’s report suggests that the refusals violate the Pierce County Code, which states, in part, “all employees, including the complainant, co-workers, potential witnesses, and others must participate in and cooperate fully in the investigation of complaints. Failure to do so may result in disciplinary action.”

Summarizing the background of the investigation, Heyrich briefly described an earlier EEO complaint by Sally Barnes, a former administrative officer at the assessor’s office. A 2009 investigation concluded that Washam retaliated against Barnes after she complained about his behavior. A separate whistleblower complaint filed by Barnes and other employees led to findings that Washam abused his authority, wasted government money and used his position to intimidate and demean employees.

The latest investigation pivots off the earlier complaints . Hall was among those interviewed in the earlier investigations.

Heyrich’s report describes a 2009 conversation between Hall and Washam regarding Barnes.

“(Hall) said that, if called as a witness, Hall would be truthful and say some good things about Barnes,” the report states. “Washam became angry, red in the face, and called (Hall) a ‘protectionist.’ From that point forward, Washam was hostile toward (Hall).”

During those earlier investigations, Washam kept track of which employees were interviewed and how long the sessions lasted, the report states. Afterward, he would ask employees whether they had criticized him.

The report cites Hall’s evaluation of a subordinate in December 2009. Hall had supervised the employee for nine months but included statistics for the employee’s work over a full year. Hall was formally reprimanded by Ugas for “falsifying” a document by including the extra data.

“The alleged offense is inexplicable,” the report states. “It is far from ‘falsification’ to include accurate data in an evaluation.”

The report also mentions Washam’s continuing crusade against the practices of his predecessor, Ken Madsen, who relied on statistical methods to re-value properties instead of the physical inspections required by law.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486, sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com