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Published: Sunday, April 14, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Inquiry into Reardon aide's claims may cost $20,000

EVERETT -- Snohomish County taxpayers may spend up to $20,000 on a private attorney hired to test the merit of a "whistleblower" complaint filed by an aide to County Executive Aaron Reardon.
The lawyer is charging $250 an hour to explore claims brought by executive analyst Kevin Hulten, who alleges that phone records and emails show county prosecutors and others have worked to undermine Reardon.
The investigation is expected to take weeks, and likely will cost somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000, Deputy County Executive Gary Haakenson said last week.
Hulten, along with Reardon's administrative assistant Jon Rudicil, since March 1 has been on paid administrative leave from his county job. Both Reardon staffers are the focus of a King County Sheriff's Office investigation. Detectives are trying to determine if laws were broken during a series of anonymous records requests targeting about 20 people in county government, many of whom were witnesses or otherwise connected to last year's Washington State Patrol investigation of Reardon's use of public funds.
Hulten has admitted making the records requests under the alias "Edmond Thomas." Rudicil, his partner in a political consulting business called Thomas and French, has acknowledged assisting Hulten in the effort.
Public records obtained by The Herald demonstrate that Hulten had personal as well as political motives for his clandestine activities. His digging not only targeted people he considers Reardon's rivals, but also some in county government who have attempted to hold Hulten to account for apparent missteps of his own, documents show.
Among those targeted: Haakenson, Hulten's direct supervisor. In December, just days after threatening Hulten with termination for repeated violations of county policy, the deputy executive became the focus of "Edmond Thomas" records requests.
Haakenson last week declined to comment on the timing of the Hulten records requests targeting him. He earlier said it is something he plans to discuss with the Reardon aide when the circumstances are right.
But the issue points to the challenges the county has faced in handling Hulten's claims that he should be a protected for attempting to ferret out what he maintains is government misconduct. The county's own attorneys haven't been able to offer legal counsel because they are among those Hulten claims have been up to no good.
In keeping with state law, the county's "whistleblower" policy is designed to encourage government employees to report misfeasance without fear of retribution. Under the county's policy, it's the deputy executive's job to investigate those complaints.
Haakenson hired Karen Sutherland, an attorney from Seattle who specializes in workplace issues, to get to the bottom of the complaint the county received early Feb. 21.
It arrived a few hours before Reardon announced his intention to resign, effective May 31. The executive has yet to submit a formal, written resignation, although he's recently said he still intends to step down.
The workplace attorney's investigation into Hulten's allegations could last into June.
Haakenson has not named the person who made the "whistleblower" complaint. Documents obtained from other county departments, however, make clear Hulten is its author.
Hulten first wrote state auditors on Feb. 15, asking about filing the complaint. That was the day after The Herald published a story linking Hulten and Rudicil to the records requests, spoof email accounts and attack websites targeting Reardon adversaries.
The complaint that Hulten sent to the state and the county six days later suggested Reardon had been damaged by the way people interacted with patrol detectives. In November 2011, they were tasked with investigating allegations that Reardon was spending county funds on out-of-state business trips with a former mistress.
The investigation documented Reardon's affair and trips, but Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks determined there was insufficient evidence to support filing any charges.
In his "whistleblower" complaint, Hulten wrote that County Councilman Dave Somers "and other past and present county officials blatantly repurposed the tax-payer funded investigation into an opportunistic vessel built for political retaliation."
He took issue with the councilman's cooperation with the patrol investigation, including concerns he discussed during a December 2011 interview with detectives. Hulten wrote that Somers is "a longtime critic" of Reardon and was out of line for labeling Hulten's behavior as a "little crazy" and perhaps worthy of review.
Hulten focused most of his attention on Jason Cummings, the county's chief civil deputy prosecutor. He accused the attorney of failing to recognize potential ethical conflicts raised by his office's representation of multiple county employees and officials who, to varying degrees, became entangled in the Reardon imbroglio.
He also suggested that Cummings failed to adequately protect the executive's interests and claimed that phone records demonstrate the attorney had been talking about Reardon to reporters.
Along with his complaint, Hulten offered a written "case study" that he said proves Cummings' misbehaviors. The document includes a string of emails between the executive's office and prosecutors in 2012 regarding bills that reporters at The Herald had requested for government phones assigned to Reardon and his employees.
Hulten had objected to the records' release. The county phone bills, in his case, also listed thousands of calls and texts he'd made using personal numbers. Those calls wound up in the public record when Hulten transferred his county numbers to a personal cellphone he bought to replace a county phone.
At one point in March 2012, Hulten wrote an assistant state attorney general in an attempt to get a legal opinion to support keeping the phone records from being released. Hulten didn't mention his involvement in the records he wanted to keep hidden.
As a county deputy prosecutor, Cummings advised the executive's office on civil matters, including complying with state records laws. He said Hulten's efforts were putting the county in legal jeopardy.
In an April 2012 email, Cummings accused Hulten of deceit for failing to accurately describe the situation to the state's attorney. It appeared Hulten was attempting to block the lawful release of public records, Cummings said.
"Your unilateral efforts to obstruct access to public records only serves to undermine this office's ability to defend the Executive's Office in a lawsuit," he wrote.
Under normal circumstances, that email would have been exempt from public release as protected attorney-client communication. Hulten, however, made it public by attaching it to the complaint he sent to state auditors, who this month released a redacted copy in response to a public records request.
Hulten's "case study" also singled out Haakenson, noting that his boss didn't respond when Hulten complained about feeling watched at work. He also suggested the deputy executive was wrong to answer questions from reporters about Hulten's phone habits.
The phone bills played an important role in demonstrating that Hulten in 2011 had commingled his county duties with digging for dirt on Reardon's election opponent, state Rep. Mike Hope, R-Lake Stevens.
On Dec. 10, Hulten began a work day by demanding records about Haakenson's time as mayor in Edmonds. He filed the records requests to the county and city of Edmonds as "Edmond Thomas," and claimed to be a representative of a company named Rue Des Blancs-Manteaux.
Haakenson five days earlier had formally disciplined Hulten for taking a car from the county motor pool without permission.
In a letter placed in Hulten's personnel file, Haakenson noted that Hulten's story about using the car to attend a Seattle School Board meeting didn't hold up to even rudimentary scrutiny. It was the third time since Hulten was hired in January 2011 that he'd been found to have misused county vehicles, the deputy executive noted.
"If such a violation happens again, you will be terminated," Haakenson wrote Hulten on Dec. 5.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » County executiveCounty Council

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