By Scott North and Noah Haglund Herald Writers
EVERETT — Snohomish County Council members are considering investigative hearings to find out whether members of County Executive Aaron Reardon’s staff are behind a series of online attacks and anonymous public records requests designed to harass and conduct surveillance on Reardon’s political rivals.
|Video: Labyrinth of influence|
|• Read about the digital maze used to harass and conduct surveillance on Aaron Reardon’s political rivals.|
The effort went beyond politics last summer with an online assault on Anne Block, a political blogger and attorney from Gold Bar. At the time, Block, who is suing the county, was trying to schedule a recall vote on Reardon. A day after she made a formal request for county records regarding Hulten’s work for the executive, somebody created a Wikipedia entry about her, eventually filling it with information the site’s moderators pulled down for being an attack page. Records show that whoever created the Block attack page was simultaneously developing a glowing online biography of Reardon.
The Herald asked seven times over eight hours Wednesday, starting at 9 a.m., for Reardon to make himself available for an interview about his staff. Reardon never did. Reardon spokesman Christopher Schwarzen spent the work day deflecting the newspaper’s interview requests.
At the county campus in downtown Everett, people for months have been trying to figure out the identity of somebody calling himself “Edmond Thomas.” Since July, he’s made multiple demands for public records, including phone bills, emails, calendars and other records involving nearly 20 people who work for county government.
Most of those people, or their spouses, were either witnesses or otherwise connected to a recent Washington State Patrol investigation into allegations that Reardon misused county money on an extramarital affair. The investigation supported the woman’s claims of trysting with Reardon on county business trips, but it didn’t result in criminal charges.
Detectives used Reardon’s records to track his activities. There is little doubt among county leaders that “Edmond Thomas” is trying to punish people for cooperating with the Reardon investigation, said Republican County Councilman John Koster, whose records haven’t been requested.
“It appears to be retribution,” he said.
The requests are expensive and burdensome, Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe said. He and others in his office — including his wife, deputy prosecutor Lisa Paul — have been targeted, too. Like Reardon, Roe and two councilmen — Dave Somers and Brian Sullivan — named in the records requests are Democrats.
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 prosecuting attorney’s budget includes money for handling public records. However, the office calculates that if they had hired an outside attorney for the work, legal fees so far would have topped $10,000.
Hulten and Rudicil are connected to the records requests through a tangle of websites and spoof email accounts, and a limited liability company that lists the pair as officers.
County Council members said evidence assembled so far demands an explanation from Reardon and his employees.
“If the executive’s office is spending its time and energy doing this kind of thing, they’re definitely not doing the county’s business,” County Councilman Dave Somers said. He called the attacks “juvenile and twisted.”
Somers and other council members say they are concerned about potential litigation that may arise if anyone on Reardon’s staff has harassed Block or any other private citizen, particularly if that happened at work or while using county resources.
They also say it is unacceptable for somebody within county government to use public records laws to pester or conduct surveillance of people in different branches of county government.
The county’s lobbyists are in Olympia trying to convince lawmakers to crack down on burdensome records requests, particularly those that seem designed to harass or vex public servants, County Councilman Dave Gossett said.
Reardon’s staff needs an opportunity to “truly, openly and transparently” respond to any suggestion of their involvement in the records requests, Gossett said. It would be “extremely disturbing” if somebody on the county payroll is creating public records headaches, he said.
“I also find it disturbing that a private citizen who would get crosswise with the county executive’s office would get this kind of harassment,” Gossett added, referring to Block.
Somers and Sullivan, along with their legislative aides, are the focus of “Edmond Thomas” records demands.
The pair said the council might, for the first time in county history, invoke a provision of the county charter that allows the council to convene investigative hearings, complete with subpoena power and sworn testimony.
The county might use congressional hearings as a model, with the goal of getting answers, not necessarily investigating whether laws were broken, Sullivan said.
“It’s about vetting the issue and finding out the truth,” he said.
No matter who is responsible, they aren’t doing Reardon any favors, the councilmen said.
Sullivan said it appeared that somebody has been injecting “Nixonian paranoia” into local government.
County prosecutors are in a difficult position, Roe said. As the county’s law firm, the office provides legal counsel and defense to all branches of government including the council, Reardon and Reardon’s office staff.
Roe said it was “demoralizing” and “like being kicked in the gut” to think about public time and resources possibly being diverted for vendettas.
“If it’s them, they ought to own up to it,” Roe said. “If it’s not them, they ought to be calling the police because somebody is pretending to be them.”
It is unknown whether Reardon was aware of what others were doing on his behalf, since he did not respond to The Herald’s interview requests. Last year, Hulten complained all the way to the governor about the State Patrol’s investigation. He later wrote his supervisor, Deputy Executive Gary Haakenson, insisting he had acted on his own and hadn’t told anyone in Reardon’s office about his complaint for months.
Haakenson was on vacation Wednesday. Reached by telephone, he referred all questions to Reardon’s spokesman.
There is much to explore, Koster said.
“You’ve got to be asking yourself, ‘Why?’” he said. “What is the motive there? What’s the motivation?”
The longtime politician said rumors are circulating about people gathering information in hopes of deciding who will run to replace Reardon, whose final term as executive ends in 2015.
One contender is Reardon’s close ally, state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens. He’s already being touted by one of Reardon’s biggest funders. Rudicil is Hobbs’ brother-in-law and Hulten is his former aide.
Koster, who also can’t seek re-election, said in his decade on the council he’s come to appreciate how hard county employees work and how hard they take it when county government looks bad.
“The voters expect better of us. And they have a right to those expectations,” he said.
Scott North: 425-339-3431; firstname.lastname@example.org.