By Oscar Halpert Herald Writer
LYNNWOOD — An investigation into Mayor Don Gough’s working relationship with his former executive assistant was a facade meant to embarrass him, the mayor’s lawyer contends.
Gough also may have been denied due process by the investigation and his role as mayor likely was obstructed, Seattle lawyer Sidney J. Strong wrote.
“The most important point is that there are no factual findings or conclusions of any unlawful conduct on Mr. Gough’s part,” Strong’s letter said. “There is no evidence in the report that Mr. Gough violated the oath of his office or otherwise violated the laws of this state.”
The letter is Gough’s first response to conclusions reached by investigators with Seabold Group of Seattle. The three-page letter was received by The Herald on Wednesday.
Gough has repeatedly declined to talk with The Herald about the investigation since the report became a public document last month. Neither the mayor nor his lawyer returned calls Wednesday.
Councilman Jim Smith said the city hired an impartial consultant to conduct the investigation and the mayor’s lawyer is not.
“Sidney Strong is paid big bucks in order to put his client in his best light,” he said. “I would say this whole thing is a big smoke screen to try to muddy up the waters of the problems the city has with Don Gough.”
Councilwomam Kimberly Cole said Gough may not have committed any crimes but he violated city policies.
“Wordsmithing doesn’t undo the wrong actions that he did,” she said.
In February, Gough’s former executive assistant, Stephanie Simpson, accused the mayor of harassing her because she’s a working mother.
The city attorney recommended that the Seabold Group investigate the allegations and the mayor authorized it. The firm interviewed Simpson in March. Less than two weeks later, she agreed to a $49,500 severance agreement that allowed her to work from home until June 1. She also agreed not to sue the city.
The City Council after learning about the severance agreement asked the Seabold Group to continue the investigation in April.
A report of that investigation, released publicly on Aug. 12, concluded that Gough repeatedly interfered with the investigation. It said he used his job to pressure and intimidate potential witnesses against him.
Although investigators spoke with 37 different witnesses, the findings largely focused on Gough’s working relationship with Simpson.
Investigators found no evidence to support Simpson’s allegations that she was passed up for a promotion because of her gender and was inconclusive as to whether Gough harbored a bias against women.
They concluded that employees feared retaliation from Gough for participating in the investigation. The report also said Gough conducted his own parallel investigation and attempted to contact witnesses while the investigation was under way.
In response to the investigation, the council in early August called for Gough to resign and changed the city’s employment policies and practices to require virtually all hiring, promotion or disciplinary action be submitted for review and confirmation by the council.
In his letter, Strong took issue with the allegations that Gough interfered with the investigation. He wrote that the investigation only happened because a human resources employee incorrectly told Simpson in February that her background qualified her to apply for the executive-level job she sought in the mayor’s office.
Strong criticized the investigation, calling it an interrogation. He also said the city had no reason to continue the investigation, because Simpson had already agreed to take the severance package and not sue the city.
“The interviewer conducted its investigation as if Mr. Gough was the target of a grand jury,” Strong wrote. “Prior to his interrogation, which lasted almost two full days, we had our requested access to what actual documents were allegedly supporting the investigation. Our requests were refused.”
Councilwoman Kerri Lonergan called the letter “an inaccurate portrayal” of events.
“This was by no means a biased process,” she said of the investigation. “This investigator took exemplary steps, in my opinion, to make sure this was a fair process.”
The fallout from the investigation continued this week when the City Council stripped Council President Ted Hikel of his title. Hikel has been the lone supporter on the council of Gough and was the only one who voted against asking him to resign.
The city still faces a $21 million budget deficit for 2011-12.
Oscar Halpert: 425-339-3429; firstname.lastname@example.org.