By Scott North and Noah Haglund Herald Writers
EVERETT — Aaron Reardon didn’t need to dirty his own hands in unearthing embarrassing information about his opponent in last year’s Snohomish County executive race.
He had placed somebody on the county payroll who frequently devoted his time and office resources to campaign-related activities.
Reardon hired Kevin Hulten in January 2011 to fill an executive analyst position on the county executive’s office team. Hulten, 33, of Granite Falls, was assigned to monitor state and federal legislation and to help Reardon connect with constituents.
Hulten also networked with three people who participated in an effort to get campaign sanctions against state Rep. Mike Hope, R-Lake Stevens, the Seattle cop running against Reardon. Combined, Hulten traded more than 200 phone calls and text messages with the trio and devoted at least four hours of time talking with them, close to half of that during work hours.
County phone records show that by year’s end, the only county employee Reardon spoke on the phone with more frequently than Hulten was Brian Parry, an executive director who has long been part of Reardon’s inner circle.
Many of the conversations between Reardon and Hulten occurred during the work day, as the junior staffer communicated with people who were digging up 11-year-old police reports that later appeared in negative ads run by Reardon’s campaign.
Reardon is under investigation by the Washington State Patrol for official misconduct involving alleged misuse of public funds. For six months, he has refused multiple interview requests from The Herald.
On Friday, results of what the patrol investigation has found so far were sent to Island County prosecutors for review.
Reardon has not scheduled a meeting to speak with detectives, patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said Saturday. In a prepared statement, Reardon’s attorney said that’s because of scheduling conflicts.
Detectives also want to talk with Hulten, and have been trying to interview him since at least January.
Hulten “was given ample opportunity to speak with us,” Calkins said. “Ultimately he was given a date certain to talk with us, and he did not meet that deadline.”
During election season, Hope accused Reardon of using Hulten for campaign purposes, something Reardon and Hulten denied repeatedly to the media.
The Herald’s review of more than 35,000 county phone records shows a pattern in which Reardon and Hulten communicated frequently during the same time periods when both were calling and messaging key figures involved in the executive’s campaign:
•On May 13, Hulten made workday campaign calls regarding complaints against Reardon’s election opponent. These included calls to the state Public Disclosure Commission; to Hulten’s friend, John Chambers of Seattle, who helped dig up Hope’s police disciplinary records; and to an Olympia attorney who was pressing the disclosure commission to find Hope in violation of campaign laws.
•On Aug. 5, Seattle police released the details of Hope’s 2001 suspension for his poor conduct during a Mill Creek traffic stop, in which he was a passenger in a girlfriend’s car.
Just before 11:30 a.m. that work day, Hulten began exchanging a series of phone calls and texts with Chambers and the Bothell lawyer who had advised Chambers on the public records request. The conversations continued into the evening.
Reardon spent part of the noon hour speaking with his campaign manager and his strategic consultant. By 2 p.m., Reardon was on the phone with a Nashville-based media expert hired to create anti-Hope ads.
•On Sept. 8, Hulten used a false name while filing a public records request with Mill Creek police for reports on Hope. The next day, starting during the noon hour and continuing into mid-afternoon, Hulten repeatedly sent Gmail messages to a police records clerk, writing that he was on deadline and needed to let his “boss” know when he’d get the report. Reardon’s phone records show that he called Hulten as these messages were being sent.
By month’s end, when questions surfaced about Reardon’s use of Hulten as a campaign operative, the pair logged some of their longest calls of the year. It is against state law for anyone to campaign using on-duty government staff, county equipment and other public resources.
Hulten refused to speak with reporters, but sent an email April 18 defending his campaign work.
“I am an individual as well as a county employee and I have a right to exercise my political beliefs as I see fit,” Hulten wrote. “Did I support the re-election of Aaron Reardon? Did I volunteer for Democratic causes outside of work? You are damn right I did.”
Hulten asserted that his conduct didn’t violate state and county laws that prohibit electioneering on the public dime, and claimed county phone records don’t prove that election-related work was done on county time or with county equipment.
As a non-hourly employee, Hulten said, his workweek often exceeds 40 hours. And, he said, his schedule was sufficiently flexible for him to take personal time for campaign activity as he saw fit, even while he was at his county desk.
Time and resources
The county executive’s office relies on little except an honor system to prevent work duties and campaign boundaries from blending.
When asked, Reardon’s office produced no policies, logs or other records of any effort to monitor how time spent working for taxpayers was kept separate from campaign activities.
The state Public Disclosure Commission enforces campaign laws and has the authority to levy steep civil fines. The commission plans its own review of campaign activity pending results of the State Patrol investigation.
In general, any state investigation into improper use of public facilities would include examining “research that is turned over and then used by the campaign,” particularly if there are suggestions it was gathered using staff time or government telephones, commission spokeswoman Lori Anderson said.
Election guidelines — posted on the commission’s website — make it clear that employee time during work hours and government telephones are strictly off limits to political campaigns.
At the same time, the state wants no role in dictating county employees’ work schedules, leaving it up to the county to decide the rules.
Deputy County Executive Gary Haakenson said he supervises Hulten, but not so closely that he monitors “him sitting at his desk, and who he calls.”
The analyst is expected to manage his own schedule to avoid bringing election-related activity into the work place.
“I’ve never found him engaged in campaign-related activity,” Haakenson said.
At the same time, Haakenson said he was unaware that phone bills and call reports documented Hulten’s work-day contact with people who were investigating Hope and filing campaign complaints. Some of those conversations occurred using Hulten’s county desk phone.
Reardon and state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, are close friends and political allies. Before Reardon hired Hulten in January 2011, Hulten spent four years as a legislative aide for Hobbs.
In response to a public records request, the county released phone bills detailing roughly 25,000 calls and text messages involving Hulten in 2011. Hulten objected to the release, arguing privacy violations.
Until The Herald asked to see the Reardon staffer’s government phone bills, county officials were unaware that Hulten had arranged for calls to his county cell phone to be routed to his personal iPhone. Hulten also uses the device for two personal cell phone numbers as well as Web-based voice messaging.
Every call and text wound up being listed in the county’s phone bills. Haakenson said he’s convinced that the county wasn’t charged extra for Hulten’s personal phone service.
On March 19, Hulten wrote Tim Ford, the state Attorney General’s Open Government ombudsman, asking for an opinion on whether the phone records should become public.
But Hulten did not tell Ford that the inquiry concerned himself. Hulten wrote that Reardon’s office was struggling with a records decision regarding an unnamed county employee.
Hulten also told Ford the records documented conversations with multiple attorneys “related to ongoing legal matters that tangentially relate to the county.”
Two key figures in Hulten’s efforts to track down damaging information about Reardon’s opponent are attorneys: Chambers’ lawyer Adam Matherly and Olympia defense attorney William Ferrell.
Ferrell brought Public Disclosure Commission complaints against Hope in April and June. State regulators dismissed those accusations, which concerned alleged improper gifts and campaign shenanigans involving a nonprofit group Hope formed.
Hulten and Ferrell traded nearly 90 messages and phone calls between April and September, the first on the day Ferrell filed his initial complaint. Ferrell declined to comment on his contacts with Hulten or the Reardon campaign.
Through Haakenson, Hulten acknowledged that the county bills show that calls were placed to a Public Disclosure Commission investigator using Hulten’s cell phone.
The Public Disclosure Commission logged information on each call made during work hours on March 31 and April 7. Issues raised in both were later featured in Ferrell’s complaints against Hope.
The state’s log shows the caller identified himself using the name of Hulten’s brother, a young Seattle lawyer. Neither Hulten nor his brother would answer questions about who placed the call.
“Kevin says that both calls were made on his personal cell phone and they were placed during his lunch and during an afternoon break,” Haakenson said. “I see no further reason for inquiry into those calls.”
Links between Reardon’s campaign and Hulten’s job became an election issue on Sept. 27.
On that day, Hope angrily claimed Hulten had been bringing campaign complaints and seeking records under the alias of “John Chambers.”
The suspicions were based on records showing that Chambers in April had supplied state campaign regulators with Hulten’s address and cellphone number as contact information.
Reardon defended Hulten. In interviews, he said he had questioned the new member of his team and reported seeing genuine surprise regarding the activities alleged by Hope.
On the same day Reardon said he had grilled his aide, Hulten spoke with the Chambers’ attorney for more than an hour from his county desk phone, records show.
Early the next morning, Matherly, who is in solo practice in Bothell, released a statement on Chambers’ behalf, describing how Matherly had been retained in June as legal counsel to help on records requests regarding Hope.
The attorney’s statement provided credible evidence that Hope was wrong in suggesting that Chambers didn’t exist. But Matherly didn’t disclose that he and Hulten are acquainted.
In 2011, Matherly and Hulten had traded at least 45 phone calls and text messages, starting in March and continuing through September. Nearly a quarter of those calls and texts had come the day in August when Hope’s discipline records were released by Seattle police.
Contacted for this story, Chambers, who works in a Seattle bank, referred questions to Matherly. Matherly declined to answer questions.
Public records suggest that Hulten and Chambers worked together in seeking the Mill Creek police reports, which later were featured on Reardon’s campaign Web page and used in attack advertisements against Hope.
When Hulten sought records in Mill Creek, he supplemented his request with copies of Chambers’ Sept. 6 filing and portions of Hope’s personnel file. He also initiated his request using a false first name — Stephen K. Hulten.
The Reardon staffer has repeatedly rebuffed the Herald’s requests for an explanation. Computer metadata contained in the Mill Creek police reports show that Reardon’s campaign used the same files that were released to Hulten and Chambers on Sept. 9.
Hulten had spent parts of that afternoon sending Mill Creek messages from his Gmail account, telling the clerk he was under deadline and facing questions from his boss. Phone records show he was simultaneously fielding phone calls from Reardon.
Hulten now says he didn’t speak with Reardon; that his boss’ calls instead were picked up by voice mail.
The State Patrol investigation into Reardon’s use of county resources began in October after a county social worker and high school classmate of Reardon told county officials he had spent taxpayer money on business trips where the pair met for trysts.
Patrol detectives obtained Reardon’s appointment calendar, thousands of his emails and government cell phone bills detailing roughly 10,000 calls and texts.
An earlier analysis by The Herald found Reardon using his county phone to call and exchange text messages hundreds of times with key campaign staff and contractors.
Reardon also spent the equivalent of a workweek dialing up donors for campaign dollars when his schedule showed him holding a series of “in-office” meetings with staff.
Patrol spokesman Calkins declined to provide details about the scope of the Reardon investigation. Detectives made no recommendation regarding charges. Calkins said that shouldn’t be interpreted as suggesting no charges are warranted. It’s up to Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks to decide.
The County Council called for Reardon to put himself on administrative leave until the case is resolved. Reardon is sticking to his public schedule.
Scott North: 425-339-3431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.