By Noah Haglund and Scott North Herald Writers
COUPEVILLE — Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon will face no criminal charges over his alleged spending of taxpayer money on trips with a woman who claims she was his mistress.
Washington State Patrol detectives found insufficient evidence to justify charges, Island County Prosecuting Attorney Greg Banks said Wednesday.
“Our decision not to prosecute Mr. Reardon is simply that: a decision not to bring a criminal case,” Banks said in a prepared statement. “Nothing more concerning Mr. Reardon’s official or unofficial conduct should be read into my conclusion that I had insufficient evidence to charge him with the crime. I did not consider any other aspects of his conduct in making my decision.”
Reardon’s attorney, John Wolfe of Seattle, said Banks’ decision had “exonerated” Reardon.
“The decision by Mr. Banks will surely disappoint Mr. Reardon’s political adversaries as well as several members of the media,” he said in a prepared statement. “The residents of Snohomish County, however, will certainly recognize that the prosecutor’s decision represents a triumph for the rule of law over what appears to have been a thinly disguised and improper effort by Mr. Reardon’s political adversaries to undermine the electoral will of the people.”
Reardon since October has been the focus of a State Patrol investigation launched after Tami Dutton, a county social worker, told a county councilman and other county officials about traveling with Reardon on county business trips that she said instead were opportunities for out-of-town hotel room trysts.
The investigation generated a 1,500-page report plus 12,000 pages of supporting documentation. Barring a court order, those documents likely will soon become public.
Reardon’s case attracted a lot of attention because it featured allegations of a public official pursuing sex while on the job. Detectives had a different focus.
“We were not investigating an extramarital affair. We were investigating an alleged misuse of public funds,” patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said Wednesday.
The investigation primarily examined Reardon’s travel expenses. Detectives delved most deeply into a September 2010 trip to Chicago, Calkins said.
Records from that trip showed Reardon’s airfare and other travel expenses were paid for by the Democratic Leadership Council, a national group that in 2009 tapped Reardon as a potential rising star among Democrat leaders. During the trip, Reardon charged the county for $82.80 in cab fares, including rides that included another passenger besides Reardon, Calkins said.
Dutton told detectives that she was the passenger. When the bills Reardon charged to the county were tallied, “in essence what we found was $6 that was unexplained,” Calkins said.
Banks said that before reviewing detectives’ reports closely he considered a number of possible charges, including misappropriation and falsification of accounts by a public officer, theft and official misconduct.
“It was pretty clear to me, once we reviewed everything, there was not sufficient evidence,” he said. “It wasn’t a question I agonized over once I had a picture of the facts.”
During the course of the investigation, Banks said he often received unsolicited email from people following Snohomish County government.
“There were some people who were unhappy with Aaron Reardon, but they weren’t providing me any facts,” he said.
He said even Dutton had doubts about whether the government, Reardon or somebody else was paying for Reardon’s travel. Additionally, the county’s travel documents “did not substantiate Ms. Dutton’s suspicions about misuse of county funds.”
“Other trips that were investigated occurred so far in the past that the statute of limitations bars prosecution of non-felony crimes,” Banks added. “Their age made it difficult to find credible witnesses with memories of the events in question, even if wrongdoing had occurred.”
The detectives also tried to run down other information, not directly related to Dutton’s allegations that came up during the investigation.
“At some point there was some suggestion that some electronic documents were deleted, but it just didn’t bear out from the witnesses they talked to,” Banks said.
Banks said his review did not examine whether Reardon violated campaign laws because they would not have constituted criminal offenses. He did mail the patrol’s investigation report to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
“I trust that any complaints concerning Mr. Reardon’s alleged use of county facilities for campaign purposes will be examined by the Public Disclosure Commission, or other appropriate authorities,” he added.
State campaign regulators have opened a file and are now poised to begin investigating, commission spokeswoman Lori Anderson said.
The Reardon investigation led to thousands of records becoming public about how his office operates. Close review of those records by The Herald and others documented Reardon dialing for dollars and engaging in other campaign-related conduct using public resources. Related records showed a junior member of his staff, Kevin Hulten, commingling time he spent on the job with efforts to dig up dirt on Reardon’s general election opponent, state Rep. Mike Hope, R-Lake Stevens.
Detectives interviewed about two dozen people during the investigation, Calkins said. Neither Hulten or Reardon talked with detectives.
Dutton has known Reardon since they attended Mariner High School. On Wednesday, she reacted with fury over how the investigation was pursued.
“The WSP left me a voicemail today (Wednesday) telling me to watch the news for ‘Banks’ press release’ like I don’t deserve notice of the outcome?” Dutton said in a text message.
She stood by her allegations about Reardon pursuing an affair when he claimed to be conducting county business. Her initial motivation was to shield herself and her family, after strangers began following her children during election season. A shadowy website with pictures of her in a swimsuit also appeared in late summer, accusing her of being Reardon’s mistress.
Dutton approached County Councilman Dave Somers, in confidence she said, after Reardon refused to help keep her family safe.
“I’d never trust another county official as far as I could throw him,” she wrote in a statement. “Dave Somers promised me confidentiality to no avail. The WSP then promised it would be a private investigation. Three days later, it was public.”
Somers said he was surprised that word of the investigation became public Nov. 3, but that wasn’t his doing.
He said he’s eager to get on with county business, without the criminal investigation looming as a constant distraction.
“I’m just relieved we finally have a conclusion to the investigation,” Somers said. “It’s been a long six-plus months.”
Somers said he hopes the council and the executive can focus on key issues, such as renegotiating a $20-million-per-year solid waste contract and coping with a projected $5.5 million shortfall in the county’s 2013 budget.
“We have a number of really important issues facing the county right now,” he said. “The investigation has obviously made communication a little more awkward over the past six months. Hopefully, we can move past that now.”
Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe said he was grateful that Banks made time to decide what should happen with the case at the same time he’s preparing for a couple of murder trials.
The prosecutor said he has no regrets in asking troopers and Banks to investigate and decide whether charges were warranted.
“I did it because it was the ethical thing to do, and doing the ethical thing is always the right thing to do,” Roe said.
Snohomish County Democratic Party Chairman Bill Phillips said authorities here made the right call in referring the case to outside agencies.
“Any time something like this happens, it’s appropriate to have an outside body examine it, so that it’s free of internal politics,” he said. “I think that was absolutely the right move.”
The prosecutor’s decision, in Phillips’ eyes, clears Reardon not only of criminal charges, but also of any suggestion he’s violated the public trust.
“I’ve said all along the question was, ‘Was the public trust violated?’ And now we know the answer,” Phillips said.
The county’s Republican leadership agreed that the criminal investigation was well handled. They came to the opposite conclusion about Reardon’s conduct.
“At the end of the day, he repeatedly violated public trust and he violated the canons of his office,” county GOP chairman Bill Cooper said. “And that is intolerable. My position is he should still step down.”
Not a chance, Reardon’s attorney said.
“Mr. Reardon will continue to represent the best interests of Snohomish County residents and will be ever vigilant in opposing those who pursue political agendas over the best interest of his constituents,” Wolfe said.