Probe finds no retaliation in Reardon case

EVERETT — Snohomish County is preparing to deny a social worker’s legal claim of workplace retaliation which sparked a 2011 criminal investigation of then-County Executive Aaron Reardon.

An independent investigator hired by the county found scant evidence to support allegations that Tamara Dutton leveled against the county in a $750,000 damage claim. A damage claim usually is a first step before filing a lawsuit against a public agency.

Dutton’s claim, filed in October, alleged mistreatment because of her role as a government whistle-blower.

“If she files a lawsuit against us, we are going to aggressively defend the county and the county taxpayers,” Deputy County Executive Mark Ericks said.

Ericks serves under Executive John Lovick, who was appointed last year after Reardon’s abrupt resignation. Reardon left office after The Herald published stories linking his staff to surveillance and harassment of rivals.

Last week, Dutton challenged the accuracy of the county’s workplace investigation, which paints an unflattering picture of her conduct at work.

“It’s all lies,” she said in an interview. “I didn’t do those things. Never.”

Dutton works as a case manager for elderly clients in the county’s Human Services Department. She began working for the county in the late 1990s as a corrections officer at the Denney Juvenile Justice Center.

The county Human Resources Department launched the workplace investigation to look into allegations Dutton made in a September email, before her damage claim.

The county paid attorney Sofia Mabee of Seattle $21,500 to investigate. The attorney’s 16-page report was based on more than two-dozen interviews. It took more than two months to complete.

“In sum, the evidence does not support a finding that Case Management employees have complained about Dutton because she reported wrongdoing by Reardon,” Mabee wrote.

In her claim, Dutton says her problems at work started after she approached County Councilman Dave Somers confidentially in October 2011.

Dutton says she felt harassed during Reardon’s 2011 re-election campaign and was seeking protection for herself and her family. Her claim faults county officials for allowing her name to become public, after which she granted on-air interviews to Seattle TV stations.

Dutton’s claim describes learning of “improprieties and improper governmental actions on the part of Mr. Reardon and his cronies” during the course of a six-year extramarital affair. The two had known each other since attending Mariner High School in south Everett. They rekindled their relationship in 2005, according to the damage claim.

Reardon went on to win the 2011 election, but the investigation dredged up embarrassing details about his personal and political life.

During that investigation, Washington State Patrol detectives looked into whether Reardon spent public money to take Dutton on county business trips. They found insufficient evidence to charge Reardon with a crime.

Dutton is represented by attorney Robin Williams Phillips of Seattle. Her claim accuses Reardon of threatening to “‘send her to Antarctica’ if she ever opened her mouth about the affair.”

Mabee’s report focuses not on the former executive but on Dutton’s Human Services co-workers.

One line of inquiry involved co-workers distancing themselves from Dutton, which she attributed to her involvement in the Reardon imbroglio. The investigator concluded otherwise.

“None of these witnesses knew Reardon or cared about his career,” the report says. “Rather, Dutton’s behavior made them uncomfortable.”

The report catalogues co-worker complaints that Dutton frequently left during the day without permission, at one point falling asleep in a car; that other employees were fearful of her threats to sue; and that others had to pick up her case load, partly due to her being on paid administrative leave several times in 2013.

In September, supervisors sent Dutton home after employees complained of her wearing a see-through dress, an outfit Dutton said she’d worn numerous times before.

“Case Management staff had legitimate reasons to be concerned about Dutton’s job performance,” the report says.

Most of the complaints were recorded anonymously. Co-workers declined to sign formal statements, telling Mabee they were afraid of what Dutton might do to them.

Mabee also examined several acts of vandalism against Dutton’s car while it was parked in the county garage, starting in late 2011. There wasn’t enough evidence to say who was responsible, according to the report.

No elected officials or executive office personnel are listed as being interviewed for the attorney’s report. Several are named as witnesses in Dutton’s claim, though. They include Reardon; Kevin Hulten, the former Reardon aide linked to most of the activity targeting his boss’ political enemies; former Deputy Executive Gary Haakenson; county attorneys; and Somers.

In 2004, Dutton and two female co-workers from Denney sued the county over what they described as a pattern of sexual harassment at work. An investigation by the county turned up substantial evidence in support of their claims. The three women and their attorneys later split a $500,000 settlement.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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