By Scott North and Noah Haglund Herald Writers
EVERETT — An attorney who specializes in workplace issues has been hired to investigate a “whistle-blower” complaint brought by a junior aide to Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon who says prosecutors failed to adequately protect his boss in a recent criminal investigation.
The aide, Kevin Hulten, is himself the focus of a criminal investigation aimed at determining whether he broke any laws while digging for dirt on others in county government.
Deputy Executive Gary Haakenson on Monday said he’s decided to hire Hulten’s allegations that Jason Cummings, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor, acted unethically. Hulten contends the evidence is found in part in phone records that he claims demonstrate that Cummings speaks frequently with reporters from The Daily Herald and The Seattle Times.
In a letter obtained under public records laws, Haakenson said he decided to hire the lawyer after his requests for investigation of Hulten’s allegations were turned down by state attorneys general, state auditors and the Washington State Bar Association.
Haakenson has not identified the county employee who sent the “whistle-blower” complaint. The County Council, however, did release a copy of an improperly filed complaint it received from Hulten. County policy says the deputy executive is responsible for handling such issues.
Haakenson said it will be up to the attorney to determine the cost and the goal of her investigation.
“I don’t know what the scope of work is going to be,” he said. “The investigator is going over all the information and putting together a scope of work, at which time she’ll let me know what the estimated cost is.”
The lawyer’s investigation comes as the King County Sheriff’s Office continues to investigate whether Hulten and another member of Reardon’s staff, Jon Rudicil, violated any laws.
Since early this month, a King County detective has been working with County Auditor Carolyn Weikel to secure electronic files, multiple county-owned computers and cellphones used by Hulten and Rudicil. The detective has special training in computer forensics.
The County Council, in an emergency vote on Feb. 20, took oversight of the county’s tech services away from Reardon and placed them under Weikel’s control. A day later, Reardon announced that he intends to step down from his job at the end of May.
County emails show that when Hulten and Rudicil were placed on administrative leave Feb. 28, neither was required to turn over their county phones or any laptop computers.
“We did have some difficulty obtaining the hardware from Mr. Hulten,” Weikel said. “It took us longer than we thought it should have taken.”
Hulten was on leave for a week before Haakenson emailed the aide, instructing him to return a county phone and laptop, emails show. Hulten didn’t keep his March 8 appointment, citing problems with an unpaid traffic ticket that prevented him from legally driving. Haakenson encouraged Hulten to get in touch with Weikel.
Hulten and the deputy executive traded more email on March 11. Hulten apparently wanted to talk with County Council Chairwoman Stephanie Wright. He’d written her early on Feb. 21, asking for “whistle-blower” protection and urging an investigation of Cummings, records show.
Haakenson told Hulten that Wright was out of the country, and he again encouraged Hulten to contact Weikel.
Hulten wrote back, saying he was confused.
The letter Haakenson had sent placing Hulten on leave limited the aide’s contact with other county employees. It also admonished him not to retaliate against or attempt to coerce any witnesses or employees participating in the investigation.
Weikel is one of the county officials targeted by Hulten’s records requests. So is Haakenson. Close to 20 county employees were included, many of them witnesses or people who otherwise cooperated with the 2012 Washington State Patrol investigation of Reardon’s use of county money in connection with an extramarital affair.
Hulten wrote Haakenson that the county laptop could be picked up the afternoon of March 11. He also wrote that he thought his county cellphone was in his office.
Weikel sent staff to Hulten’s home near Granite Falls to retrieve the laptop. Meanwhile, Haakenson checked Hulten’s office for the phone, but it wasn’t found.
Hulten then wrote that the phone probably was in his car, which was in a repair shop. He said the phone was broken and that he’d been using his own iPhone to handle county calls since February 2011.
Hulten’s county phone was dropped off Thursday — two weeks after he was placed on leave.
Rudicil was on vacation when placed on leave. He returned his county phone on March 12, two days after exchanging email about the request with Haakenson.
In his email to Haakenson, Rudicil insisted he never did anything to harass or intimidate anyone connected to the Reardon investigation, and that he believes he’s being penalized for being a friend and business partner with Hulten.
The pair last year formed a consulting company, Thomas and French, LLC. Some of the records requests Hulten now admits making under the alias “Edmond Thomas” came from the domain thomasandfrench.com.
In his email, Rudicil reminded Haakenson that the deputy executive asked him to work for a time as a public records officer, clearing up a backlog of records requests in the executive’s office.
One of the records requests “came from Kevin Hulten,” Rudicil wrote.
Rudicil also said that he directed pickup of records “once the county notified Kevin that they were ready to be picked up because Kevin advised me that he could not get them himself.”
In October, two couriers were used gather documents the county released under one “Edmond Thomas” records request.
Rudicil wrote Haakenson that Hulten told him “he believed that there were some issues related to the (Reardon) investigation conducted by the Washington State Patrol,” and that Hulten was “going to look into it.”
Rudicil wrote that he told Hulten “whatever he did, he should be careful to comply with all applicable policies and procedures.”
Rudicil added that he hoped the sheriff’s investigation “will be done in a fair way, and that I am able to get back to my normal life. I also look forward to having my name cleared.”
There is no county policy that says employees on administrative leave must surrender their county phones and laptops, Haakenson said.
During administrative leave, unless on approved vacation, the county employee needs to be at home and available for phone contact between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on work days.
Hulten and Rudicil were already on leave for about a week when the auditor asked for their computers and cellphones so they could be turned over to the detective.
“Once the auditor asked for the devices, we made every attempt to get them back,” Haakenson said.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.