Snohomish County worker’s lawsuit paints shocking, disgusting picture

  • Tue Apr 27th, 2010 10:16pm
  • News

By Julie Muhlstein Herald columnist

Debbie McPherson is 59. I’m 56.

She has worked 27 years for Snohomish County. I’ve been at The Herald 29 years.

My salary has about doubled since 1981. McPherson today earns just half what she made as a manager in the county’s planning department.

That’s not the only difference between us. If the environment portrayed in a lawsuit filed Friday against Snohomish County reflects the truth, McPherson’s workplace experience has been as different from mine as night and day.

In three decades working alongside men of varying ages and titles, I have never experienced anything close to some of the scenarios described in McPherson’s complaint. What’s painted in the lawsuit filed in King County is a disgusting picture of an old-boy ethic straight out of the bad old days.

Unbelievable, that’s the word that came to mind as I read page after page of allegations. The suit contends that Mark Soine, who resigned as Snohomish County’s deputy executive Monday, failed to address complaints of sexually charged misbehavior in the county Department of Planning and Development Services. The director of that department, until he was fired last August, was Craig Ladiser.

Claims in the lawsuit have yet to be proven in court.

What McPherson says happened may seem unbelievable — until you consider the circumstances that led to Ladiser’s departure. Who could forget?

Ladiser lost his job after an outside law firm’s investigation found he drunkenly exposed himself to a woman during a Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties golf tournament in Redmond. In March, Ladiser was charged in King County Superior Court with indecent exposure and fourth-degree assault with sexual motivation. He has pleaded not guilty to those charges.

Knowing that history, I closely read McPherson’s complaint of discrimination and humiliation. Among them are:

Ladiser participated in a ‘Bare butts’ skit — he and other male department managers and supervisors wore plastic buttocks at an office function. A picture of them wearing the props was posted on the official department “sharepoint web page.” Pictures of a male employee wearing an ‘ugly sweater’ over false breasts were also posted.

The suit claims that Greg Morgan, the planning department’s deputy director, was seen by McPherson making a “sexual gesture and comment to a young female,” that Morgan bragged about his supply of the erectile-dysfunction drug Cialis, and that male employees ranked the department’s “prettiest girls.” The lawsuit also alleges that Morgan “touched female employees in an unwanted manner” as well as a customer – and “openly mocked disabled employees in weekly manager meetings.” It alleges, too, that Ladiser failed to correct Morgan.

McPherson is a former human resources manager in the planning department. She now does administrative support work for the Snohomish County Board of Equalization. The suit claims that as a human resources manager, McPherson had Morgan review a sexual harassment policy. According to her complaint, Morgan laughed and said “This is everything I do.”

McPherson was laid off, according to the lawsuit, in December 2008.

The suit filed last week, and served to the county on Monday, was not her first attempt to air grievances. According to the suit, she complained about discrimination to the county’s Equal Employment Opportunity investigator, Mark Knudsen — whom the lawsuit labels “a ‘black hole’ for such complaints.” If that name sounds familiar, you may recall that Knudsen submitted his resignation Feb. 22.

People responsible for leadership — Soine and Knudsen — have jumped ship.

McPherson, now working for half what she used to make, claims she suffered “humiliation, embarrassment, pain and anxiety and suffering.”

She said Tuesday it never had to go as far as it has — which is a nearly $1 million lawsuit against Snohomish County.

“The lawsuit was filed because I never heard any communication from the county,” she said. “This probably didn’t have to happen, if they had communicated and taken care of it.”

If it goes as far as a jury, they’ll hear a she-said, they-said case.

They may be mystified, as I am, at claims that any of this garbage still happens — in any workplace.

Complainer? Yes, but I’d call McPherson a courageous one. She could have kept quiet, and maybe kept her bigger paycheck. She spoke up, for herself and for others.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.