Aaron Reardon used public resources to raise campaign cash, records show

  • By Scott North and Noah Haglund Herald Writers
  • Wednesday, February 15, 2012 5:43pm
  • Local NewsLocal news

EVERETT — Campaign and office records show Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon spent 2011 making extensive use of taxpayer resources to run for his third term in office.

Reardon set aside 124 work hours on his county schedule for campaign work, and made roughly 1,000 calls to campaign staff and those who gave money to his re-election. That amounted to 43 hours spent dialing for dollars from his county phone while he was purportedly managing county business.

A Herald examination also found that Reardon had frequent meetings with his key fundraising consultant during work hours — appointments set up by his county-employed assistant and listed as “staff meetings” on his public calendar.

Office holders are prohibited from using public resources for political campaigns. Doing so violates state elections law and Snohomish County’s ethics code, and can lead to steep fines.

Before and after the election, Reardon, a Democrat, has insisted that no public resources were used in his campaign and that he only used his county phone for election-related calls “when I had to reschedule meetings.” He has repeatedly refused to answer further questions, saying he is awaiting results of a Washington State Patrol investigation, launched a few days before the November election.

Investigators are trying to determine whether Reardon, who is married, spent taxpayer money on an affair with Tamara Dutton, a county human services employee who also was his classmate at Mariner High School in the 1980s.

Dutton, of Bothell, has refused on-the-record interview requests from The Herald.

Dutton has previously spoken with Seattle media, and did so again on Valentine’s Day to say she estimates Reardon spent about a few thousand dollars of county money on their affair. Much of that, for a trip to Chicago in 2010, was repaid within weeks by the Democratic Leadership Council.

As details of their reported affair grab wide attention, those who monitor government, political campaigns and work for those seeking office are taking note of how Reardon blended his personal political campaign with his public duties.

Among the records released so far is evidence that Reardon frequently and consistently used county resources for his political campaign.

It should be well understood by politicians that taxpayers do not provide a piggy bank of public money to use in re-election campaigns, said Ron Dotzauer. Dotzauer, of Snohomish, for decades has been a go-to political consultant for Washington Democrats who aspire to higher office.

“It is against the law in the state of Washington to use public facilities or public equipment for campaign purposes,” Dotzauer said. “That is not appropriate. And it is illegal.”

If Reardon used public resources to get re-elected, Dotzauer said, “it’s going to cost him money.” And it’s expensive to run for public office.

Reardon paid Seattle political fundraising consultant Colby Underwood $41,000 to work on his campaign. Underwood helped Reardon take in almost $400,000 in donations.

Emails show that “in-office staff meetings” were scheduled to accommodate meetings with Underwood, who is well-known in state and county political circles and, standing nearly 7 feet tall, is hard to miss.

He was often seen coming and going from meetings with Reardon in the executive’s office on the sixth floor of the county building.

Cellphone records show that Reardon exchanged about 500 calls and texts with Underwood via the county-issued cellphone – roughly 10 hours of talking time – in the run-up to the election.

In December, after his county phone records were released to The Herald, Reardon made multiple phone calls to a Herald reporter. While he didn’t address documented calls to Dutton, he sought to explain his relationship with Underwood.

Reardon said he and Underwood were discussing a project that could produce electricity from methane gas at the old Cathcart Landfill. Underwood is chief business officer for a Seattle company called Blue Marble Biomaterials.

Underwood’s work as a paid campaign employee had nothing to do with those meetings, Reardon said. “My dominant relationship (with Underwood) is regarding his role in alternative energy,” Reardon said.

Underwood did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.

County council members and other elected officials, including some who have used Underwood to assist their own campaigns, said they’d never heard of Blue Marble Biomaterials or any projects being in the works for the old Cathcart dump.

A public records request filed in December regarding Blue Marble and Underwood has provided no record of any discussions. Reardon’s office did hand over a 13-page promotion packet produced by the company, much of it already available on the company’s website.

Comparing Reardon’s county office schedule with his county cellphone records show more than 50 times listed as “in-office staff meetings,” when Reardon actually was making campaign-related phone calls. Records show 43 hours were spent on such calls.

At times, up to 50 phone calls would be made in quick succession during these meetings, each often lasting under two minutes. Many of the calls were made to Seattle-area professionals, lobbyists and other contributors. Through Sept. 20, Reardon raised $52,105 from Snohomish County donors, compared with $167,475 given by those from outside the county.

On Nov. 8, 2011, Reardon beat state representative Mike Hope, R-Lake Stevens, for the $150,000-per-year county executive position. The nasty campaign involved Reardon junior staffer Kevin Hulten* spending time on a Friday afternoon using county email to dig up a decade-old Mill Creek Police report involving Hope. He fielded phone calls from Reardon while pressing the city to release the records.

County cellphone records document calls made to Reardon donors, including the Amalgamated Transit Union, the Consumer Fireworks Safety Association, the Broadband Communications Association of Washington and the Washington Aggregate and Concrete Association.

Misuse of public resources on election campaigns is something that the state Public Disclosure Commission investigates, but only after receiving complaints.

The commission has no active investigation into Reardon’s 2011 campaign, spokeswoman Lori Anderson said.

She asked if The Herald would provide the records assembled for this story. The newspaper, which generally considers reporters’ notes as confidential, declined.

“We’re always interested in looking at evidence that people uncover,” Anderson said. “After reviewing it, we would have to look at whether we’d file our own complaint if somebody else hadn’t filed one.”

State law provides for fines of up to $10,000 for campaign violations. Penalties often escalate if someone has been investigated by the PDC before, she said.

The commission has investigated Reardon twice before. Last June, he was fined $750, with all but $250 suspended, for failing to properly disclose who paid for out-of-town travel in 2009. He also was investigated in 2003 in connection with a campaign committee; nothing came from that probe.

Several Reardon campaign contributors said their calls with the executive were about county matters, and the focus was on legislation in Olympia, or area business opportunities.

Joe Quintana, a Seattle lobbyist, wrote Reardon’s campaign a $250 check. Records show two calls to Quintana last year from Reardon’s cellphone: one under a minute, made during a Reardon calling blitz, the other a few days later and about five minutes long.

Quintana said he’s confident the longer call was about one of his clients. He said the pitch to contribute to Reardon’s campaign came not on the phone but from somebody who asked him to attend a fundraising event in Seattle.

“I thought he was the best candidate,” Quintana said.

Others whom Reardon called didn’t send him money.

That list includes the National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund, the Washington State Chiropractic Association and a state lobbyist for police unions.

However, two short Reardon calls in early June to the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters brought $1,600 in contributions — the maximum allowed under state law.

The calls from Reardon were for campaign contributions, said John Little, who oversees the political work for carpenters in five states.

“The county exec last year ran for election, we supported him, we wrote him checks,” he said. “That would be the extent of my contact.”

Washington State Patrol investigators appear to be focusing on Reardon’s spending while on out-of-town trips. They also obtained call records for the county-owned cellphone Reardon carries, plus his office schedules and thousands of his emails.

The Herald built timelines and databases from those records, and results were compared with campaign-finance reports.

Reardon’s government phone bills detail about 10,000 calls and text messages in 2011. Only the numbers dialed, not whom the executive was talking with, are listed. Numbers were matched to people. Not every person contacted was cooperative, so gaps remain in the Herald database.

State patrol detectives have interviewed some of Reardon’s closest employees.

Brian Parry, a former Reardon campaign manager who now works as one of his executive directors, on Tuesday confirmed that he’d recently met with detectives and said the questions he was asked were “pretty vanilla.” He also said detectives were leaking information.

People who know how the county’s computer system works also have been questioned.

One former county tech employee, who spoke with reporters on the condition that his name not be used, said he told detectives about numerous personal email exchanges between Dutton and Reardon. Computer workers discovered the messages about five years ago when they were asked to copy Dutton’s emails as part of an investigation into an unrelated workplace complaint.

The messages documented Reardon and Dutton coordinating their workouts and lunches, and ended with her apologizing for being jealous, the source said.

It isn’t clear whether the messages were somehow preserved. In response to recent public disclosure requests, the county has released only a couple of email messages between Dutton and Reardon, the oldest dating to August 2005. All appear to be work-related.

State Patrol investigators recently asked the state auditor’s office to examine Reardon’s travel records, something auditors routinely do each year. They found “no reportable conditions,” but they did identify minor purchasing-related issues they brought directly to the attention of county staff.

The auditor’s work attracted the attention of two of Reardon’s close political allies from the so-called Road Kill Caucus in the state Legislature.

On Wednesday, the state auditor’s office released a Feb. 9 letter it sent state Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, and Reardon’s close friend, Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens. The pair wanted word on whether state auditors had found anything in their examination.

Next to his wife, Hobbs is the person Reardon talks with most. In 2011, the pair were on the phone about 90 hours, records show.

Hatfield was once Reardon’s roommate when they served in the Legislature. He said he planned to meet soon with State Patrol Chief John R. Batiste to find out how an ongoing investigation was revealed to reporters in November.

“Let’s figure out what happened…” Hatfield said. “I think it threatened future whistleblowers.”

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

* Correction, Feb. 18, 2011: Snohomish County legislative analyst Kevin Hulten used a Gmail account to seek records from Mill Creek police. Concurrently, County Executive Aaron Reardon communicated with Hulten using their county-issued cellphones. The specific county communications account that was used in this exchange was incorrectly reported in an earlier version of this story.

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