Auditor's Office investigates allegations

The state Auditor's Office is looking into allegations a Sumner city councilman running for the state Legislature improperly used city e-mail for personal business.

E-mails sent between Matt Richardson and a city volunteer in 2008 include requests by Richardson to use secure passwords and delete messages after reading. Portions of the content were written in code at Richardson’s request.

“So, although this is city e-mail and is subject to open records requests for abuse of city equipment or campaigning from city e-mail, conversations about business are good here,” he wrote in one e-mail, obtained by The Herald of Puyallup. “Personal things like meeting me at the Seattle Westin room 1708 on May 10 at 3, could be broken down to SWR1708-5/10-3.”

A complaint by a former aide to Richardson’s opponent, Sen. Pam Roach of Auburn, set off the probe. The Auditor’s Office says it’s investigating while keeping in mind that the claims are being made during campaign season.

The race has become nasty as the two Republicans trade accusations and all three challengers, including Democrats Raymond Bunk and Ron Weigelt, say Roach can’t represent the 31st District well because of the Legislature’s sanctions against her for conflicts with staff and other senators. It has even landed in court, as Roach sued successfully to force changes in Richardson’s statement in the state voter pamphlet.

The July 27 complaint also accuses Richardson of misusing his office to influence the sale of property in his neighborhood.

Richardson denies the accusations. He said public employees can use e-mail occasionally for personal communication and a few e-mails cherry-picked from the thousands he’s sent since joining the council in 2004 fall far short of any wrongdoing.

“You don’t get there when you have a couple or a few e-mail conversations with somebody who works for the city,” he said. “The conversation might go crass, it might go to a joke – that happens a lot of places.”

Auditor Brian Sonntag’s office will consider if Richardson followed Sumner’s code of ethics, which bans the use of city property for “personal convenience or profit.”

Unlike rules for state employees, the ethics code doesn’t make exceptions for occasional use at negligible cost. Sonntag’s office could recommend Sumner add such exceptions, auditor spokeswoman Mindy Chambers said.

The Auditor’s Office set the complaint aside at first over questions about its jurisdiction and whether the matter had already been investigated. The office later learned the city had never done an ethics investigation and renewed its probe, Chambers said.

In his complaint, Roach supporter Chris Clifford said the e-mails “set up liaisons at the Seattle Westin Hotel and indicate a liaison paid for by the City of Sumner at the Association of Washington Cities Convention. Setting up an extramarital liaison with a woman does not constitute City business.”

However, the two appear to have never met up at the June 2008 meeting of city governments. Richardson suggested in an e-mail that she attend – adding “the city should pay for you to be there. Obviously no mention of me at anyone under any circumstances” – but she told him it didn’t work for her schedule. Richardson told The News Tribune he wanted his name left out to avoid rumors about his relationship with the woman .

A public document request to the City of Sumner by The Herald of Puyallup revealed about three dozen e-mails sent from Richardson to the woman in May and June 2008.

A June 16, 2008, e-mail warns the woman about the pending request by The Herald. “It is unfortunate that our long friendship and dry sense of humor could be misconstrued by someone that has no idea that we are making fun of our ‘affair,’ ” he wrote.

“ I strongly recommend you resist the disclosure on personal grounds.”

The News Tribune is not naming the volunteer because she hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing.

The two are just friends, said Richardson, who is married. He said the flirtatious e-mails full of codes, riddles and teasing about “sexual tension” are nothing more than tongue-in-cheek jokes.

Clifford also accuses Richardson of confronting a group of bankers thinking about buying a property across the street from his house on Rivergrove Drive.

Richardson told the potential buyers he was a councilman and said the council planned to make the vacant property’s zoning more restrictive, Clifford says, citing an account by the property owner. Efforts to reach the owner were unsuccessful.

Richardson said he has talked openly for years about wanting lower density on the few remaining large, vacant tracts of land in town, including the one across the street. He said he once asked surveyors on the property about the owner’s plans, and may have answered a question they asked about the property’s zoning, but didn’t talk to buyers.

“I have in no way ever involved myself in messing up any private business dealings,” he said.

The probe comes from a frivolous complaint meant to help Roach’s campaign, Richardson said.

Clifford worked in the Senate, including a month in 2008 as Roach’s legislative aide, and continued afterward to represent her on a state child-custody case she worked on, according to a Legislative Ethics Board report on the case.

But Clifford said he’s not worried Richardson will defeat Roach in Tuesday’s primary. His goal, he said, is to convince Sumner residents to recall Richardson or vote him out of office.

“I find this guy has no judgment,” he said, “and I find it shocking that he continues to run for higher office.”

Heather Meier, editor of The Herald of Puyallup, shared many of the public records on which this story was based. The Herald is a weekly publication and sister newspaper to The News Tribune.