By Noah Haglund and Scott North Herald Writers
EVERETT — An example needs to be made of the former Snohomish County aide now accused of trying to scrub data and other evidence of potential misconduct from a county owned computer, says one of the state’s leading advocates for preserving access to public records.
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said Tuesday that the case emerging against Kevin Hulten appears ripe for prosecution under a seldom-used state law that makes it a felony to “unlawfully remove, alter, mutilate, destroy, conceal or obliterate” public records.
If the allegations about Hulten prove true, prosecutors should send a strong message to discourage others in government from similar attempts to destroy public records, Nixon said.
Hulten, 34, worked as a legislative analyst for Aaron Reardon before the former county executive’s resignation May 31 after a string of scandals.
A forensic inspection of a county laptop Hulten had been using for work shows that on March 11 he loaded a data-wiping program and partially scrubbed the device just before surrendering it for inspection in a criminal case, the King County Sheriff’s Office says.
The detectives wanted to examine the laptop as part of an investigation to determine Hulten’s precise role in a shadowy effort that had targeted Reardon’s political rivals with anonymous records requests, spoof emails and Web hit pages.
In police reports made public last week, the King County detectives suggested Hulten’s conduct warrants at least a charge of tampering with evidence, a gross misdemeanor.
To help Snohomish County officials avoid a conflict in interest, Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney Rich Weyrich will decide what should happen with any charges. On Tuesday, Weyrich said he couldn’t discuss the case, other than to say no timeline has been set for reaching a decision.
King County detectives continue to investigate.
On Tuesday, Nixon used email and WashCOG’s Twitter to suggest that Hulten’s conduct should face sufficient sanction to discourage others who also may consider scrubbing computers of public records.
“Any public employee who intentionally destroys public records to cover up wrongdoing should not get off with only a misdemeanor,” he said. “RCW 40.16 allows these crimes to be prosecuted as felonies, with penalties of up to 10 years in jail and $5,000 in fines for each charge. These egregious cases — like the Michael Garvison case in Skamania County — should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law so as to discourage others.”
Garvison is a former county auditor from southwest Washington who was charged with two felonies for destruction of records related to alleged misuse of public funds. After a long legal battle that involved assistant state attorneys general and special prosecutors, he ultimately pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor.
The King County investigation was requested by Snohomish County officials after The Herald reported on evidence showing Hulten had adopted the alias “Edmond Thomas” and threatened to sue the county if it didn’t comply with his demands for thousands of documents, which focused on nearly 20 of his fellow county employees.
Most of those people had earlier cooperated with a Washington State Patrol investigation of Reardon’s use of public funds in an affair with a county social worker. Some of those targeted said the “Edmond Thomas” requests seemed to be retaliation or an attempt at surveillance and harassment.
Hulten initially denied responsibility for the “Edmond Thomas” records requests, and threatened to sue. He then admitted he was behind the demands but insisted there was no intent at harassment or surveillance.
The King County investigation examined several county-owned computers Hulten had used, including those on desks within Reardon’s former suite of offices.
The detectives found computer logons connected to Hulten that were used to launch Wikipedia and Twitter attacks aimed at Reardon’s political enemies, including a Gold Bar blogger who was trying to get him recalled. They also found evidence Hulten used the publicly owned computers to work on Reardon’s 2011 re-election campaign on county time, as well perform background checks of other elected county leaders, documents show.
Hulten responded to news about what detectives found by posting a lengthy account of what he insists has been retaliation for an attempt at being a government whistleblower. Snohomish County this spring spent nearly $35,000 on an independent attorney to investigate Hulten’s claims of government corruption. She determined they were baseless.
Hulten repeatedly had denied any records existed showing he’d used public resources on Reardon’s campaign. He resigned in April just before being fired for using county computers to view and store commercial pornography and sexually explicit images of himself and a former girlfriend.
The pornography also led county officials to recover roughly 400 documents that earlier had been deleted from a county laptop assigned to Hulten. The records provide a window into Hulten’s involvement in Reardon’s 2011 re-election campaign, including evidence he spent time on the job developing ethics complaints against Reardon’s Republican opponent.
The state Public Disclosure Commission is investigating both Hulten and Reardon for using public resources in political campaigns.
Scott North: 425-339-3431; email@example.com.