By Noah Haglund and Scott North Herald Writers
EVERETT — One of Aaron Reardon’s aides could face a criminal evidence-tampering charge after an investigation found evidence he tried to scrub data from a laptop used in a scheme to harass the former Snohomish County executive’s political enemies.
The county-owned laptop was provided to Kevin Hulten, 34, for his work as Reardon’s legislative analyst.
On March 11, just before county staff collected the laptop as part of a King County Sheriff’s Office investigation into his activities, Hulten allegedly used a data-wiping program to scrub the device.
While a lot of information was lost, Hulten’s digital fingerprints still were recovered from the laptop and from other county-owned computers — including those on desks within Reardon’s former office suite.
Evidence shows Hulten used publicly owned computers to work on Reardon’s 2011 re-election campaign on county time, as well as conduct background checks of other elected county leaders. The investigation also found that computer logons connected to Hulten 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, according to King County sheriff’s reports.
The King County investigation was requested earlier this year by Snohomish County leaders after Hulten admitted he used fake identities to make a series of records requests. The documents were released last week under state public records laws.
The Herald in February unmasked Hulten as the person who sought multiple records requests from the county under the name “Edmond Thomas,” claiming to represent a company called “Rue Des Blancs-Manteaux.”
Hulten, as Thomas, threatened to sue the county if it didn’t fork over records about government workers who cooperated with a 2011 Washington State Patrol investigation into Reardon’s use of public money during an affair with a county social worker.
The Island County prosecutor ultimately concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge Reardon with any crime related to the affair.
Skagit County prosecutors are reviewing the latest investigation.
King County detectives Thien Do and Chris Knudsen have told them that Hulten’s conduct could constitute at least misdemeanor tampering with evidence, as well as other potential violations of state law prohibiting use of public resources in political campaigns.
Officials in King and Skagit counties agreed to conduct and review the investigation to help Snohomish County avoid a conflict of interest. The investigation is continuing. It’s unclear when Skagit County prosecutors will make any decisions on charges. The Snohomish County Council received an update on Monday from King County authorities.
“We received notification today and haven’t had time to review the material,” Council Chairwoman Stephanie Wright said.
If what the police report says is true, says County Councilman John Koster, he wants to see Hulten charged.
“We’ll see what they decide in terms of filing charges, but this should go beyond an exercise in discovery, for crying out loud,” Koster said. “The guy broke the law and needs to be held accountable.”
Koster also asked how Hulten’s actions could have persisted in light of the constant reminders that politicians receive about keeping political campaigns separate from their taxpayer-funded jobs.
“How did this guy go unsupervised, if he was unsupervised?” Koster said. “How did Aaron not know?”
One of the first things King County detectives did when assigned the case on March 6 was to ask Snohomish County staff to gather up all the computers used for county work by Hulten, Reardon and another one of the Democrat’s aides, Jon Rudicil.
The detectives have special training in computer forensics, and planned to submit each device to a detailed analysis that would show, among other things, how they’d been used, what websites had been visited and what files were saved.
Hulten still had his county laptop on March 1 when he was put on paid administrative leave. He was supposed to stay at his home during work hours but wasn’t there on March 8, when county information systems staff dropped by to get it from him.
When they came back on March 11, Hulten made them wait outside for about 40 minutes before handing it over, according to sheriff’s office reports.
Hulten’s county laptop initially could not be examined. It was protected by a password and encryption software, and Hulten insisted he knew nothing about either, records show.
The King County detective got around those obstacles by contacting the laptop’s manufacturer and getting help under terms of the laptop’s warranty. When the detective examined the device, he determined that it had been partially scrubbed and was missing the operating system and other data.
Enough information remained, however, that the detective reportedly found evidence that a data-wiping program was loaded and activated on the laptop at 12:47 p.m. March 11. That was a couple of hours before county staff arrived at Hulten’s Granite Falls home to get it.
Before Reardon resigned from office May 31, he urged a thorough investigation of himself and his staff. Detectives examined Reardon’s laptop and found nothing except for a copy of his resignation speech.
Reardon did not return an email seeking comment. He no longer lives in Snohomish County and is pursuing a career out of politics, as a private financial consultant.
Hulten resigned from his county job in April, just as he was about to be fired after pornography and sexually explicit images of himself and a former girlfriend were found on another county laptop he used.
Hulten said he did nothing wrong, and that the images somehow
accidentally wound up on the county computer, or were deliberately put there by somebody trying to get him in trouble.
When King County detectives searched county computers used by
Hulten they also found sexually explicit images and more evidence that he’d downloaded commercial pornography, according to sheriff’s office records.
During his two years as a county employee, Hulten had access to multiple computers. He was given a county laptop when he joined Reardon’s staff in January 2011 and used it through mid-June 2012. That’s when he traded it in for a second laptop he had county information services staff build for him.
From the older laptop detectives recovered files related to Reardon’s 2011 re-election campaign.
County Auditor Carolyn Weikel found the same thing when the laptop was examined.
When authority for public records was stripped from Reardon in
February and given to Weikel, she also inherited a public records challenge that began in November 2011 when The Herald sought documents about Hulten’s involvement in Reardon’s re-election campaign.
Hulten admitted trying to dig up dirt on the Republican challenger, state Rep. Mike Hope, but insisted he did so on his own time and without using county resources. The newspaper and Reardon’s office spent much of a year sparring over whether the executive and his public records staff had adequately searched for responsive records.
A letter from the newspaper’s attorney early this year prompted county officials to re-examine the search.
When county staff looked at Hulten’s first county laptop, they not only found the sexually explicit images but also folders with names that hinted at campaign-related activity.
Somebody had made an attempt to delete those folders and their contents. At The Herald’s urging, Weikel in September directed her staff to see if those folders still contained any data responsive to the newspaper’s 2011 records request.
In October she turned over more than 400 individual files found on the hard drive of Hulten’s older county laptop. The documents show Hulten was deeply involved in efforts to get Hope investigated by the state Public Disclosure Commission and the Seattle Police Department, where Hope then worked as a patrol officer. Metadata from those files show Hulten prepared many of those documents during hours he reported working at his county job.
One of the recovered documents, drafted on March 31, 2011, laid out strategy for attacking Hope with a series of ethics complaints brought to state campaign regulators, the Legislature and his employer.
“Ethics charges, again and again and again,” says the document, titled “Hope Strategy outline.”
The document also contained a section titled “Psy Ops,” which suggests, among other things, attacking Hope with a “shadow website” and battling for voters’ hearts and minds with posts to comments beneath news stories. It also advocated creating a “farcical twitter to mock him ‘RealMikeHope.’”
That exact Twitter account was established during the 2011 election cycle. Its spoof of Hope said: “Thinker of good ideas. Catcher of bad people. Wearer of badge. Shoot first. Why ask questions?”
Both Hulten and Reardon also are the focus of state Public Disclosure Commission investigations into evidence they used public resources in support of Reardon’s 2011 campaign.
New County Executive John Lovick’s office has provided state investigators with the documents Weikel recovered from the laptop Hulten was using during that election season.
Scott North: 425-339-3431, firstname.lastname@example.org.