EVERETT — Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon is facing the biggest crisis yet in his public life.
Last week, news reports accused him of philandering on the taxpayers’ dime. He became the focus of a criminal investigation just before he was elected to a third term in office earlier this month.
Reardon, who turns 41 this week, is frequently mentioned as a solid contender for higher office.
For all the time and money spent by state and local politicos to polish Reardon for bigger things, his image as a rising star in the Democrat party is suddenly vulnerable. The biggest risk for him is that his troubles will be viewed as products of being messy in his political life, as well as in his private one.
“This could seriously damage his political chances at anything he wants to do in the future, depending on how it turns out,” said state Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish. “It might be nothing. But if it is real it would end his ability to move up.”
History also shows that politicians are resilient and voters often forgiving, he said.
During his eight years in office, Reardon has counterbalanced his achievements with recurring controversies and conflict, particularly involving other elected leaders.
He has built up a reservoir of ill will among many local leaders, especially among members of his own party, who for years have grumbled about his penchant for taking sole credit for the good, while blaming others for what goes wrong.
While those troubles have generated a lot of heat in the administration building of the state’s third largest county, they so far haven’t mattered much to voters. Reardon won his third term, the last he can under term limits, by a double-digit margin in the Nov. 8 all-mail election.
His win came just five days after the Washington State Patrol announced it is investigating his travel expenses. They are focusing on allegations that Reardon, who is married, traveled on county business but spent the time in hotel rooms with a woman, a county employee, with whom he’s reportedly had a long-running affair. That could constitute official misconduct, a gross misdemeanor.
Reardon was out of the office last week, according to his staff, rock climbing in California.
His response to questions about the case was to hire a criminal defense lawyer and provide a terse, email denial of criminal wrongdoing. Reardon ignored questions from The Herald about his relationship with the woman.
Peter Jackson, son of the late Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, on Thursday wrote in his blog on the Crosscut website that he hopes the allegations aren’t true.
If they are, Reardon should resign, he wrote.
“I wasn’t trying to apply a puritanical leadership standard,” Jackson said Friday. “Northwesterners are tolerant and forgiving by nature. However, on the heels of a bitter campaign, with locals stung and reeling from the political noise, the criminal investigation of the county executive and Reardon’s parsed-word responses compound the cynicism and loss of faith.”
Jackson added: “If it is true, then Reardon compromised his integrity and, by extension, diminished the public sphere. He will need to go.”
During Reardon’s watch, Snohomish County government has managed to avoid the financial earthquakes that are rattling the state.
Still, there are leaders in the community who encouraged other prominent Democrats to run against him this fall.
State Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, said he was among those approached. He considered it, but ultimately decided against it because the political math of challenging an incumbent just didn’t pencil out, McCoy said.
“I’m not going to do a pile-on here,” he said. “In his eight years, let’s just say there are a lot of things that I would have done different.”
History of controversy
Reardon served in the Legislature before making his bid for the county executive job in 2003. He’d just been elected to a state Senate seat when he announced his plans.
That race turned ugly, with Reardon and fellow Democrat Kevin Quigley engaging in a brutal primary, followed by Reardon’s close win over Republican Dave Earling, who this month was elected as the new mayor of Edmonds.
During that election season, Reardon was accused of bending the rules by using a political action committee that was called People for Ethical Government to raise money for his campaign. Nothing came of the finger-pointing.
Reardon’s first term was characterized by relentless self-promotion. During the first two years on the job Reardon issued 140 press releases — averaging one per week. He stood at the front of the pack when county officials lined up to take bows for completing construction on a new jail and county administration wing, which were started years earlier by his predecessor, Bob Drewel.
At the same time, Reardon blamed Drewel for what he often said was a budget deficit. Republicans and Democrats in county government said there was no truth to the new county executive’s claim that there was a budget crisis that he needed to solve.
From early on, Reardon made changes in county department heads and his core staff — repeatedly. That prompted some to worry about a brain drain. He also presided over county government’s long-discussed absorption of the decades-old county emergency management agency. Initially, it didn’t go well. The new county department missed a critical deadline and came close to losing a nearly $1 million homeland security grant.
Mark Soine, then Reardon’s deputy executive, initially denied the county had any paperwork documenting what happened. Handed a public records request, a pile of documents were kicked loose a few hours later.
Similar incidents became a pattern of the executive’s office in the years ahead.
County Council members complained that Reardon’s office got miserly with information and cut them out of key negotiations which they’d later have to vote on.
One of the noisiest confrontations came in April 2007. Council members heard Reardon’s staff was planning to spend $250,000 of taxpayer money on a community celebration for the rollout of Boeing’s 787 jetliner. When confronted, Soine said there was nothing to talk about.
The council, led by a Democratic majority, didn’t believe him, and reacted by restricting Reardon’s ability to sign contracts above $5,000.
The council’s distrust and lack of confidence in Reardon’s management didn’t end there.
The next year, the council voted to transfer management of the jail away from Reardon’s oversight to the sheriff after overtime spending and worker discontent shot through the roof.
Until recently, his biggest crisis came in June 2009 when the man Reardon hired to be planning director, Craig Ladiser, got drunk while at a building industry golf tournament. Ladiser pressed his bare genitals against a woman’s leg when his group was right on the course waiting for hers to tee off.
She worked for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, a key source of campaign funding throughout Reardon’s political career. Ladiser ultimately pleaded guilty to fourth-degree assault with sexual motivation and also to indecent exposure.
The police investigation documented efforts by the Master Builders to pressure the woman into not reporting the crime.
It took months, but records eventually emerged showing that top members of Reardon’s staff, including Soine and the county’s human resources director, were aware of the pressure put on the woman.
Ladiser’s absence from his county job was first characterized by Reardon staffers as a family emergency. Later, Reardon maintained he’d immediately fired Ladiser once he had evidence of the misdeeds.
When documents emerged suggesting those versions of Ladiser’s separation from the county were wrong, Reardon’s staff explained that those papers had simply become lost in Soine’s office.
By then, Soine already had resigned, citing a need to spend more time with his family. When he left, he also took the blame for not more closely supervising complaints involving workplace harassment in the county, particularly in the planning department, where even customers reported being groped.
Reardon replaced Soine with Gary Haakenson, who left his job as Edmonds mayor to join the staff. That move drew widespread praise from county leaders of both parties and has eased tensions with the council.
That decision hasn’t brought more finesse to all aspects of Reardon’s operation.
In February, Reardon caught many elected leaders off guard by announcing he was bringing a new water-bottling facility to Port of Everett land, which would create jobs. Construction would be underway by mid-year, he said.
But the plant turned out to be nothing more than a business concept, pushed along by personal relationships. The Reardon staffer working on the project left to form a company with the plant’s backers, whose energy drink Reardon once pitched in a YouTube video ad. No work has started on the project.
Reardon has been most visible this year on the campaign trail.
It was his first serious race since being elected. His opponent in 2007 was a children’s magician and former Microsoft manager who never held public office.
This year he faced state Rep. Mike Hope, R-Lake Stevens. It was a bruising election, replete with operatives from both sides trying to make the other appear unethical.
Hope, a Seattle cop, believed Reardon was vulnerable to allegations of corruption and mismanagement.
A Reardon staffer dug up dirt on Hope, and a decade-old suspension for his conduct as a passenger in the car of a woman pulled over for drunken driving in Mill Creek. It’s still unclear whether the campaign research was done on county time, though Reardon’s office insists it wasn’t.
Hope, meanwhile, attempted to draw media attention to a 2006 sexual harassment settlement that involves the woman who prompted the State Patrol investigation. Reardon, in a meeting at The Herald prior to the election, acknowledged he’s known the woman since high school.
Court records show the three women plaintiffs in the 2006 case all worked at the Denney Juvenile Justice Center. They claimed they were mistreated by supervisors, managers and certain coworkers. The women split $500,000 the county paid to settle the case without trial.
During the campaign, Hope and some of his supporters said that the settlement bought silence about Reardon’s rumored extramarital activities. Before the election, Reardon said Hope’s accusation just demonstrated ignorance of the way legal claims are handled by the county.
Michael Held, one of the deputy prosecutors who oversaw the 2006 harassment case, said the records of what happened are clear and available to the public. Hope’s supporters continue to claim, falsely, that the records are sealed.
“The decision to settle the case, following mediation, was made by the County Council, on the recommendation and advice of the prosecuting attorney after extensive pretrial discovery and thoroughly evaluating the merits of plaintiffs’ claims,” he said. “The executive’s office had no involvement in the decision, other than to sign the settlement agreement at the direction of Council, and at no time sought to influence the case’s outcome.”
The settlement was signed by Peter Camp, one of Reardon’s executive directors.
On Thursday, Hope said he no longer believes the 2006 settlement was improper.
Still, he said, it’s appropriate for Reardon to be under investigation, even if the reason is different from the claims he made during the campaign.
“I’m not benefiting from this investigation now,” he said.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; email@example.com.