By Noah Haglund and Scott North Herald Writers
EVERETT — The Snohomish County Council voted unanimously Wednesday morning to move authority for operating the county’s computers and other technology away from the control of County Executive Aaron Reardon.
The move was prompted “to ensure the integrity of the public records, as well as the public confidence in the county’s records” while Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe seeks an independent, outside investigation to determine if laws were broken by Reardon’s staff in a campaign that appears to have been designed to harass their boss’ political rivals, council members said.
“It is incumbent on the Council to ensure that all county records are appropriately maintained and kept available for investigative and legal purposes,” said Council Chairwoman Stephanie Wright, who like Reardon, is a Democrat.
Reardon’s office released a statement around 3:30 p.m., again condoning the action of staff who sought public records as a citizen, not as a county employee.
The decision to take away Reardon’s control of the county’s information systems department happened “without public notice or comment, without notification to employees within the department and with no analysis or discussion by the County Council …
“The highly unusual step taken today creates a distraction from county business while raising serious questions about Council’s intentions and the content of the records they question the need to release,” the statement said.
The council took action after revelations in The Herald last week detailing how clues, including documents on file with the Secretary of State’s office, link two of Reardon’s staff to attack Web pages, spoof email addresses and a series of public records requests at the county from somebody who claims to be “Edmond Thomas.”
Those targeted by the activity say they believe the deception employed by Reardon’s staff is harassment and an attempt to engage in surveillance of people considered Reardon’s political enemies, including those interviewed during a Washington State Patrol criminal investigation of Reardon’s use of public funds. Harassing witnesses in a criminal investigation is against the law.
Whatever is found now by investigators, the conduct described in the news stories is “reprehensible and casts a shadow over county government,” said Councilman John Koster, the lone Republican on the council. “It is disturbing that this sort of behavior was allowed to occur right under Mr. Reardon’s nose.”
Others in county government Wednesday were scratching their heads over Reardon’s assertion that concerns over his staff’s conduct meant the County Council was trying to hide records.
County Council staff have spent about 60 hours so far gathering materials released in response to requests from “Edmond Thomas,” said Kathryn Bratcher, the council’s clerk. Among the records turned over so far are phone bills and call histories for two councilmen and their legislative aides, plus travel and expense reports. Still being pre0pared for release are a year’s worth of emails involving county councilmen and their staff, Bratcher said.
Meanwhile, a county civil prosecutor has logged 108 hours and administrative staffers have spent more than 60 hours pulling together records to give to “Edmond Thomas.”
The 5-0 vote Wednesday was a stinging repudiation of Reardon’s ability to manage the county’s day-to-day operations — and evidence of the deep distrust other elected officials have for the embattled executive, who currently is the subject of a state Public Disclosure Commission investigation.
Councilman Dave Somers, a Democrat, left little doubt that he thinks heads should roll, or that people in Reardon’s office at least need to be placed on leave.
“We cannot suspend members of the executive staff due to the separation of powers,” he said.
The council declared that an emergency exists in county government, and ordered that oversight of the county’s information and technology department immediately be taken from Reardon’s control and entrusted to County Auditor Carolyn Weikel.
• Video from today’s Snohomish County Council meeting (the portion regarding Information Services begins about 17:30 in).
“I’m honored by the confidence the council has placed in me today,” Weikel said. “While this is not something my office sought or requested, I understand the urgency behind the council’s action.”
In addition to reorganizing the department, the council budgeted $150,000 to pay the salary and benefits of a new director to help Weikel’s office manage the department. The county’s current tech director, Gage Andrews, will remain in his job.
“At this point in time, I have no plans to make any changes,” Weikel said.
Council members last week said they were exploring whether to take the unprecedented step of convening investigative hearings, as allowed by the county charter. By week’s end, the prosecuting attorney, who serves as the council’s legal counsel, made clear he favored an independent investigation by police to determine whether laws may have been broken.
“I am in communication with a couple of different agencies,” Roe said Wednesday. “That’s all I can say.”
Somers made clear that the council has a role in making certain that the county gets answers.
“Our responsibility at this point is to maintain county operations at a high standard, and to support the prosecuting attorney in our joint efforts to obtain an outside, impartial investigation of the allegations,” he said.
The situation is even more complicated because the records requests brought by “Edmond Thomas” targeted Roe, his wife and others in the prosecutor’s office, Weikel, Somers, Councilman Brian Sullivan and others on council staff.
The county’s tech department has been a source of dispute in Snohomish County for at least three years.
The Department of Information Services historically has reported to the executive’s office, but serves all of county government. It employs about 80 people and has a budget of around $80 million.
An audit performed in 2010 found that poor communication between the executive’s office and council members was hurting the county’s tech operations. The $50,000 study by Seattle consultant Moss Adams LLP also reported that several staff members said the department appeared more attentive to the needs of departments under Reardon than those run by other elected county leaders.
Other questions surrounded the department’s decision to buy software for storing old emails, but not turning it on. Within months of the audit, Reardon’s tech department director Larry Calter resigned.
To address some of the audit issues, county leaders began to meet for regular committee meetings about technology services.
Wednesday’s move to strip Reardon’s authority over the county’s technology oversight came less than a week after The Herald published a report linking Reardon’s legislative analyst Kevin Hulten and aide Jon Rudicil to records requests by “Edmond Thomas.”
The campaign targeted nearly 20 people on the county payroll, most of whom cooperated with the recent investigation into whether Reardon misspent public money while pursuing an extramarital affair with a social worker employed by the county. State Patrol detectives documented the relationship, but it was nothing that warranted criminal charges for Reardon, the Island County prosecutor decided.
Reardon has remained silent on the newspaper’s report about the source of the “Edmond Thomas” records requests, except for a brief statement Feb. 14 saying that he did not tell staff to engage in the conduct. The statement also noted that the staffer apologized to Reardon for the embarrassment caused by the newspaper stories.
The executive’s office still has not made Reardon, Hulten or Rudicil available for interviews by The Herald.
Reardon’s statement said Hulten had acknowledged engaging in some sort of conduct, but offered no details. On Friday, in the span of about 18 hours, Hulten sent out emails first claiming that he wasn’t behind the records requests and attack pages detailed in The Herald, and later claiming he was using a “third party” to camouflage his connection to the records requests.
In statements he reportedly sent to KING 5 and The Associated Press, Hulten said it was “absurd” to characterize what he was doing as harassment or surveillance, and that he was gathering records for potential litigation. He did not specify a potential target.
Hulten’s brother, Kyle Hulten, is a Seattle attorney. Records on file with the Secretary of State show that Kyle Hulten and his inVigor Law Group helped Kevin Hulten and Rudicil create Thomas and French, LLC. That company is linked to Reardon-related records requests “Edmond Thomas” made last year to the Washington State Patrol.
Other requests have come from an email account established for a company called Rue des Blancs-Manteaux, LLC. Both ThomasandFrench.com and Blancs-Manteaux.com trace back to the same mailbox drop in Bellevue.
Kyle Hulten on Tuesday turned aside questions about his involvement with any efforts his brother or Rudicil made on behalf of Reardon. He also declined to say whether the law firm is exploring litigation on Kevin Hulten’s behalf.
“Thank you for contacting inVigor Law Group,” Kyle Hulten wrote. “As you may know, attorneys are required by law to protect confidential client communications. Accordingly, we cannot comment on or answer the questions you posed. inVigor Law Group will say that we have helped and will continue to help individuals, businesses, and other organizations properly organize under the laws of the state of Washington.”
Council members Wednesday said they were saddened that county employees may be working under a cloud of suspicion through no fault of their own.
“There are thousands of hard-working, dedicated county employees who come to work every day and do their best to build and repair roads, protect our citizens, maintain a world-class parks system and provide a hundred other services on behalf of county residents,” Councilman Brian Sullivan said. “They deserve better than to be painted with the broad brush of misconduct that taints the executive office. We all deserve better.”
On Thursday morning, Reardon is set to deliver his annual State of the County address before a group of business leaders at Everett Golf and Country Club. It will be the first time he has spoken in public since the controversy erupted over his staff’s latest actions.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org