PAINE FIELD — A mechanic at Paine Field, the airport owned by Snohomish County, recently was accused of heading into work on a holiday, removing the engine from a surplus fire truck and selling it for scrap.
The sheriff’s office didn’t pursue criminal charges, but the mechanic got dinged for not following county rules about disposal of surplus equipment and for incurring holiday pay without permission.
The case of the missing engine took some odd turns. Before it was resolved, it explored arcane county property management policies, prompted a labor grievance and sparked the ire of an airport supervisor who didn’t like the cops getting involved.
A sheriff’s deputy who is assigned to patrol the airport heard the engine went missing in November. He reported it to airport director Arif Ghouse as a potential theft.
The airport public safety manager, Jeff Bohnet, then complained that the deputy should have come directly to him, because the deputy was supposed to be “one of us.”
Bohnet, who acts as the fire chief, also was unhappy with the sheriff’s detectives sent to investigate. He delayed their interviews with employees and then called their lieutenant to complain, according to public records obtained by The Daily Herald.
Investigators determined there was insufficient proof a crime had been committed, in large part because others at the airport led the mechanic to believe he had permission to scrap the engine and the county would get some compensation. That didn’t happen.
Instead, the county later determined it had to retroactively pay the mechanic a half day of holiday pay for the work — four hours at time and a half.
Ghouse conducted an internal review after the sheriff’s investigation. He determined that the mechanic had broken county rules.
The mechanic received “verbal counseling” and a letter in his personnel file, said Kent Patton, a spokesman for the county executive’s office. The engine, which weighed more than a ton and required a forklift to move, was deemed worthless by the recycling company. The engine had been sitting in the surplus fire truck for at least six years, Patton said.
Engines of similar vintage can go for more than $10,000, but county officials say the one in question needed expensive repairs, costs that wouldn’t have been recouped.
The engine was taken on Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11. The incident was discovered because an on-duty firefighter went looking for an airport forklift. The off-duty mechanic was found using a forklift. Four other people with him were later determined to be from the recycling company.
After word reached Ghouse and the sheriff’s office, the Snohomish County Auto Theft Task Force was asked to conduct the investigation.
On Nov. 20, three investigators, including sheriff’s detective Eric Fagan, went to the airport. Ghouse provided them with office space for interviews.
They were about to question a potential witness when Bohnet, the fire chief, entered the room. He asked to speak with detectives before any interviews. He said the Paine Field fire department should have gotten rid of the fire truck years ago, and that he had permission to scrap it. He said the situation had gotten “blown out of proportion” and “out of control,” Fagan wrote.
Fagan described Bohnet’s behavior as an “uninvited presence and interruption of the interview.”
Bohnet told the detectives that Troy Jess, the sheriff’s deputy assigned to the airport, was “one of us” and should have brought any concerns directly to him.
Bohnet told the detectives “we certainly need to speak with Deputy Jess and his superiors to try and address how Deputy Jess handled this situation,” Fagan wrote.
Fire department employees reported that Bohnet told them that loose talk “around the table hurt us.”
Minutes after the detectives left the airport, Bohnet called to say he would be contacting their lieutenant.
“He told me he did not like or appreciate my line of questioning,” Fagan wrote.
Bohnet later told police he learned the engine had been removed the day after it happened. He declined to give more details, because his interview was being recorded, but said the mechanic was led to believe he was authorized to take the engine.
Meanwhile, the mechanic told police he had worked for the county for only two years and didn’t understand the rules about holidays.
The mechanic told the detectives that “he knows now, had he done things a little different, that he would still have been able to scrap the engine but with less headache and hassle,” Fagan wrote.
The mechanic received retroactive holiday pay. That was required by state employment laws, Ghouse said. The mechanic’s union also filed a grievance saying the way the work was conducted violated the labor contract. The grievance later was withdrawn.
Ghouse reviewed the police report and determined that county rules were broken. In general, the county surpluses items that have been deemed obsolete or no longer in use. It doesn’t matter if it is a dump truck or a typewriter. County departments can decide how to dispose of surplus equipment but any income must remain with the county.
This transaction was complicated because the engine needed to be removed and evaluated by the reclamation company before its value could be determined.
“It was clear some people weren’t as familiar with the policies as they should have been,” Ghouse said. “That’s been rectified.”
The plan for removing the engine should have gone through the chain of command, but the mechanic’s “heart was in the right place,” Ghouse said.
When asked about Bohnet’s behavior, Ghouse said he does not question the accuracy of the police report. Ghouse said it is his duty as airport director to talk to senior employees about lessons learned.
“The chief was doing what he thought was in the best interest of the department,” Ghouse said.
The internal review found no lack of oversight, he said.
“We’re all human,” he said. “The big story for me out of this was there was no crime.”
As Fagan was closing his investigation, he received an email from Bohnet.
“Chief Bohnet said during this process he learned that allowing anything, regardless of value, to get into the hands of a county employee is against county policy,” the detective wrote. “Chief Bohnet said he has since brushed up on the county policy in regards to surplused equipment.”
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org.