Costs climb as investigation at juvenile justice center widens

EVERETT — The cost of investigating potential misconduct among Snohomish County juvenile detention staff is expected to creep higher into the six figures as a web of accusations grows more entangled.

The Human Resources Department wants the County Council to authorize up to $350,000 for an outside attorney’s ongoing investigation — a potential 75 percent jump in cost. The current contract is for a maximum of $200,000. The personnel inquiry covers allegations of sexual harassment, racial discrimination and retaliation against employees who speak out.

The request could reach the council next week for discussion.

“This was an extremely large and complex case,” county human resources director Bridget Clawson said.

The county is paying Mill Creek attorney Marcella Fleming Reed $300 an hour to conduct the investigation.

The scope of the work has grown to include nearly all of the detention staff at the Denney Juvenile Justice Center.

To date, Reed and her staff have spoken to 78 employees, some multiple times, Clawson said. That’s led to 140 interviews.

The investigation has explored complaints from 14 different people, she said. There are 21 people accused of misbehavior.

That work has generated 40,000 separate documents for review, Clawson said. The interviews are done, but the attorney still needs to finish separate reports for each complaint. That’s expected to take at least another month.

The probe covers sexual harassment allegations that have kept Everett City Councilman Ron Gipson on paid administrative leave from his day job as a county juvenile corrections officer since early this year.

A detention supervisor placed on leave at the same time as Gipson has returned to work, said court administrator Bob Terwilliger, who oversees Denney.

Early findings from the investigation turned up nothing to warrant keeping the supervisor away from the workplace, Terwilliger said. No one else is on leave, he said.

The turmoil in the juvenile lockup came to light in February, when three women accused Gipson and unnamed supervisors of sexual harassment and retaliation. To settle the claim, they asked the county for $450,000 each in damages, plus attorney fees.

The women sued the county in April over the allegations. The plaintiffs are Dee Thayer, Barbara Lucken and Karen Hastings. In the suit, they describe a locker-room atmosphere where they felt threatened and ridiculed.

All three have worked in juvenile corrections at the county since the late 1990s, slightly less time than Gipson.

Three black men who work at Denney, including Gipson, said they’ve been subjected to a racist smear campaign. He and two black supervisors lodged a complaint about it in February.

The personnel problems come during a protracted labor dispute at Denney. A 12-person bargaining unit that represented juvenile detention supervisors recently split in two. The employees are trying to form separate unions.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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