Blowing The Whistle On Puget Sound Agency
Washington's whistle–blower law encourages public servants to report wrongdoing when they see it. The law lets insiders blow the whistle anonymously on bad behavior by state officials. And it protects the employees from retaliation if their employers even suspect them of spilling the beans.
But sometimes, whistle–blowers lose their jobs anyway. KUOW's John Ryan brings us the story of one whistle–blower at the state agency responsible for cleaning up Puget Sound. It's part one of our KUOW investigation of the Puget Sound Partnership.
The whistle–blower said executive director David Dicks had one of his staff design a poster for an election campaign. The poster was for a fundraiser that Dicks co–hosted last October for King County Executive candidate Dow Constantine. State ethics and campaign–finance laws forbid public officials from doing campaign work while they're at work. Those laws aim to keep tax dollars from influencing election outcomes.
The whistle–blower also said that Dicks and his deputy director were illegally using their state–assigned cars for personal purposes.
When a whistle–blower complains, the Washington state auditor's office investigates. In this case, auditors found no evidence to support the whistle–blower's main charge. They quickly closed the case.
But a KUOW investigation shows that the state investigation was compromised before key evidence could be collected.
Sandy Miller is one of two investigators who handle whistle–blower complaints for the auditor's office. She says they try to investigate discreetly.
Miller: "Until we know what happened, we don't want the whole organization to know about it. We try to keep it low–key and only as a need–to–know."
They want to avoid harming anybody's reputation if the allegations prove to be unfounded. And they don't want the investigations' subjects to know what they're up to.
Miller: "We need to make sure that evidence is preserved. Once we've done that, then we can let the subject know that there is an investigation."
But in the Puget Sound Partnership case, Miller let two of the three people named in the complaint know about it beforehand –– by her account, as much as three days before she obtained the necessary evidence. Those two people informed the third person before Miller could question him.
Miller began her investigation in December by meeting with the Partnership's deputy director, Lynda Ransley, in a cafe outside Olympia.
Ransley declined to speak to KUOW. So this story relies largely on the working papers from Sandy Miller's investigation. We got those by using the state's public records law.
Miller says she told the deputy director that the complaint involved misuse of an employee's computer. She'd need to confiscate it as evidence. Miller says she asked for Ransley's assistance getting into the office when no one was around.
Miller: "And she said, I need to know who you're talking about to make sure that the computer's going to be there. Sometimes they have laptops, sometimes they take them home. So I told her, I'm going to trust you on this one. Here's who the person is."
The person was the Partnership's graphic designer, Jon Bridgman. The whistle–blower said she watched Bridgman work on the campaign poster during his normal work day on his state computer.
Ransley agreed not to tell anyone else about the case except her boss David Dicks, who had requested the poster. And the investigator agreed.
Miller: "I said that's fine because he is the executive director, but to make sure this is just the two of them, until I get the hard drive out."
Miller and Ransley made a plan to meet three days later, in front of the Partnership's Seattle office. So that Sunday morning, they meet on a sidewalk downtown. The temperature hovers just above freezing. Ransley lets the investigator inside the quiet office building, then up to the fourth floor. She leads her to the right cubicle and points out the computer to take for forensic analysis.
Macintosh in hand, Miller is ready to call Jon Bridgman, tell him about the complaint, and question him. But Lynda Ransley tells her to wait. David Dicks is calling him first.
Miller voices her disapproval with the interference into her investigation.
Miller: "I had made it clear to them, they were not to contact him, I would do it. They overstepped. What I asked them not to do, they went ahead and did it."
David Dicks says his phone call wasn't interfering.
Dicks: "I said the auditor would be calling him momentarily and he should answer all their questions, and I didn't know what it was about, substantively."
Ryan: "So you didn't advise Jon what he should say?"
Dicks: "Absolutely not."
Bridgman declined to speak with KUOW. But according to the working papers for the investigation, he told Sandy Miller that he designed the campaign materials as David Dicks asked him to: on his home computer, in his off hours.
Miller asked him how the whistle–blower could have known he worked on a poster if he only did it at home? Bridgman said someone may have heard him and his boss talking about it, and that he had brought up the Constantine campaign website once just to look at it. Despite that admission, the computer forensics people at the state auditor's office found nothing connected to Dow Constantine on Bridgman's hard drive.
According to the investigator, Bridgman also told her that he made very little personal use of his work computer, and that he did not get on the Internet. But judging from his Twitter account, Bridgman frequently composed and posted haiku poetry on the Internet during the work day, sometimes dozens of tweets a day.
I asked David Dicks how the Partnership's whistle–blower could have known about the campaign poster if it was produced somewhere else.
Dicks: "I can't speculate about what the whistle–blower saw or did not see, all I can say is that the state auditor looked at this particular issue and found no evidence that anything had happened on Jon's state computer, and I think that issue's resolved."
Ryan: "Do you see a problem with a state agency director asking an employee to do political work on their own time?"
Dicks: "The short answer is I don't think there's a problem with that as long as it's on my time and his time. We are all citizens and have the right to participate in the political process, and that's not suspended when you become an employee of a state agency. I didn't order him to do anything, and I certainly didn't have him do anything on state time."
Dicks also says he's been friends with Bridgman much longer than he's been his boss. The Washington Executive Ethics Board enforces the state's ethics laws. It also gives ethics training to state employees. Melanie DeLeon is head of the board. She says even if the campaign–poster work was done on personal equipment and personal time, it's still a conflict of interest: A state supervisor can't ask an employee to do something for personal or political benefit.
DeLeon: "Clearly, when a supervisor asks a subordinate to do something, the subordinate feels obligated. I mean, I think that that's pretty clear. So that's why the ethics laws basically say, a supervisor should not have any kind of an outside obligation with a subordinate because there's a balance of power issue here."
There's one other problem. An in–kind campaign contribution like professional graphic–design work must be reported to the state's Public Disclosure Commission. The PDC database shows no contributions from Bridgman or Dicks last year.
State auditors closed their investigation in January of this year. KUOW requested a copy of the whistle–blower file from the auditor's office in March. Partnership officials say there's no connection, but two days later, the Partnership fired the whistle–blower. She had worked for the agency since it started in 2007.
The Puget Sound Partnership is a small agency. The Seattle office where the whistle–blower and the graphic designer both worked only has about 15 employees. Partnership officials say they didn't know the whistle–blower was the whistle–blower when they fired her. Other than that, they wouldn't discuss her departure. Here's David Dicks.
Dicks: "I can't comment on that legally, on advice of our attorney general, other than to say we fully support the whistle–blower laws of the state of Washington."
Professional staff at the Puget Sound Partnership serve at the pleasure of their employer. That means the agency doesn't need a reason to fire anyone. Still, internal documents released by the Partnership include no criticisms of the whistle–blower's job performance. They do include a glowing recommendation letter her supervisor wrote shortly after he fired her.
David Dicks says the whole whistle–blower complaint is a nonissue.
Dicks: "They closed the case in the preliminary period. There's no issue here, period. And we didn't know ever, until actually we were notified later by the actual whistle–blower, who the whistle–blower was."
According to public records obtained by KUOW, the fired employee admitted to being the whistle–blower in a letter to David Dicks a few days after she was fired. Her letter suggested that Dicks had her fired in retaliation for her whistle–blowing. That would violate the state whistle–blower law.
She asked for six months' pay and benefits in exchange for resigning quietly and not suing the agency. A week later, David Dicks signed a settlement agreeing to the payout. The agreement also required both sides to keep the terms a secret.
But KUOW got a copy of the agreement under the Public Records Act. The payout to the fired and then un–fired whistle–blower cost taxpayers about $40,000.
The whistle–blower declined to speak to KUOW.
The state auditor's office declined to investigate the whistle–blower's other allegations against her bosses. KUOW did look into one of them. We'll have that story tomorrow.
I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.
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