Aaron Reardon’s fall from grace

EVERETT — As last winter brought gray skies to Snohomish County, Aaron Reardon had every reason to anticipate brighter days ahead.

The top elected official in the state’s third-largest county, Reardon spent much of 2012 laying low during a sex scandal that could have ended in criminal prosecution. He emerged uncharged, his reputation scarred but his job intact.

While his campaign practices remained under scrutiny by state election watchdogs, there was no obvious reason to believe Reardon couldn’t have remained county executive until his third term expired in 2015.

Instead, he stepped down Friday.

Reardon, 42, walked away from office as two members of his former personal staff are the focus of an ongoing King County Sheriff’s Office investigation into possible criminal harassment of other elected county leaders.

He also leaves behind myriad unanswered questions. What did he know? When did he know it? What was it about this particular dustup that would cause him to call it quits?

In his surprise February resignation speech, Reardon said he’d been worn down, financially and emotionally. He claimed the controversies dogging him were well-orchestrated “false and scurrilous” attacks by political enemies.

But the scandal that ultimately cost Reardon his job — furor over anonymous records requests apparently designed to snoop on his political rivals — was rooted within his own office.

As more evidence surfaces, it’s clear that if Reardon wasn’t directly involved in the charade himself, he lacked the management to detect that people he hired, sitting just feet away, were up to political mischief on his behalf.

To some, Reardon’s conservative Democratic leanings and unbeaten campaign record put him on the fast track to bigger things, perhaps the governor’s mansion or Congress. Still, the problems that punctuated his nine years in the county’s top job provided reasons to doubt whether he had the low gears and discipline necessary for the daily grind of governance.

There were lawsuits, mostly from women, over unaddressed sexual harassment in the county workplace. There was the out-of-control alcoholic he hired to run the planning department, who never got a performance evaluation. There was his inability to develop or keep productive working relationships with a Who’s Who of local elected leaders.

Reardon brushed off repeated requests by The Herald to talk for this story. As one of his final acts in office, he released a lengthy statement, posted on Facebook and the county website, describing how he retooled county government, kept unemployment low and created a climate for job growth.

“Today, Snohomish County is on track, in the black and moving forward,” Reardon wrote. “I am pleased to leave this organization on such solid footing and I commend the members of my administration and county employees who did the hard but necessary work to make this happen day by day.”

His last significant act as county executive — signing an agreement over land use planning with the Tulalip Tribes — ignored county rules requiring him to get County Council approval first.

Reardon’s political immaturity earned him a reputation for “churlishness,” said Ron Dotzauer, of Snohomish, for decades a go-to political consultant for Washington Democrats.

“Egos are a wonderful thing in politics until they get out of whack,” he said. “As soon as you start thinking you’re invincible, or that you are above the fray, that is the beginning of your demise.”

Reardon brought about his own undoing, said Cathy Allen, who runs The Connections Group, a Seattle-based political consulting firm.

“It looks like he just got sloppy, bored and tricked into believing his own spin,” she said. “The fall from grace is always hard and that fall from grace always happens when you start believing your own spin.”

* * *

Reardon campaigned as a tireless protector of family-wage jobs, an economic-development dynamo, a guy who could be counted on to wrestle government spending into submission.

While that image played well with voters, the claims left others shaking their heads.

Republican County Councilman John Koster won his seat in 2001, two years before voters sent Reardon to the executive’s office. Koster appreciated the young Democrat’s fiscal conservatism.

“When Aaron was elected, I thought he was a guy with great potential,” Koster said. “I’ve always thought that.”

Over the next decade, however, Koster saw the articulate politician fall short as the county’s top administrator.

Though effective when he applied himself, Reardon was hampered by an inability to forge relationships with county leaders of either party, Koster said.

“His managerial style always left something to be desired,” he said. “His relationship with the council was never good — ever.”

Reardon was too rarely a statesman. “There are a lot of people who thought he never got out of campaign mode,” Koster said. “A lot of people thought he was more focused on campaigning than on governing.”

As the years passed, Reardon’s critics said his real job was promoting himself.

Over the course of his political career — which started with election to the Legislature at 27 and then executive at 33 — Reardon raised roughly $1 million to fuel his campaigns. During election season, he’d be so busy stumping for votes and dialing for dollars that some kept a running tally of the days since his car had last been spotted in the county parking garage.

When things went well, such as the county keeping within budget without tax hikes or expanding training opportunities for aerospace workers, Reardon was quick to credit himself.

When things went bad, he was nowhere to be found.

Black marks on his watch include an abandoned attempt to land a University of Washington branch campus; an about-face on an effort to bring a NASCAR racetrack to north Marysville; and protracted study of commercial air service at Paine Field. In 2011 he surprised Everett officials by trumpeting a plan to build a water-bottling plant somewhere in their city.

* * *

Some of Reardon’s most serious trouble began on a golf course in King County in June 2009 — and he wasn’t even there. His planning director, Craig Ladiser, committed a sexually motivated assault on a woman building-industry lobbyist while black-out drunk on tequila.

The golf tournament was sponsored by the Master Builders, then the woman’s employer. She didn’t go along with her boss’s attempt to resolve the situation without involving police. Although the woman didn’t immediately report what happened to police, when she did, her complaints ultimately led to Ladiser’s conviction. The scandal also revealed Ladiser as a drunk, and a poor manager with a history of sexual harassment allegations.

Ladiser, a Reardon hire, was fired a couple of months after the attack. His dismissal came as the woman sought a protection order, making his misconduct public. Until then, Reardon’s office had explained Ladiser’s absence from work as a “family emergency.”

Later, evidence surfaced that Reardon’s office knew and did nothing about the efforts by a top Master Builders official to pressure the woman from pursuing Ladiser’s criminal prosecution. A separate lawsuit by a former county employee described the planning department as a workplace that promoted partying and had managers who condoned sexual misbehavior, including groping female customers at the copy machine.

Reardon’s deputy executive, Mark Soine, was his chief soldier in skirmishes with the County Council. Soine resigned when the county was forced to settle a series of expensive sexual harassment claims. An independent review found the county had a pattern of ignoring misconduct and mishandling personnel investigations.

A seemingly chastened Reardon sought advice from business and government leaders. He went looking for a new deputy executive to better manage the county’s day-to-day affairs.

Reardon selected Gary Haakenson, then mayor of Edmonds, in May 2010. The Republican came with skills he learned in launching the Zumiez sportswear company and distinguished service as a nonpartisan government leader. By all reports, the straight-talking Haakenson demonstrated he was serious about making county government under Reardon work well for taxpayers.

But by fall 2010, the executive was back in election mode, scheduling fund-raising sessions during work days with his campaign financing consultant. One of his first acts in 2011 was to shuffle staff to create an opening so he could hire Kevin Hulten, then a legislative aide to Reardon’s longtime friend and political ally state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.

When Hulten arrived at his Snohomish County job, government insiders wondered whether he’d been brought in to help Reardon’s re-election. The speculation owed in large part to a cyber smear campaign that erupted during Hobbs’ 2010 race. The nasty, personal attacks targeted Lillian Kaufer, Hobbs’ Democratic opponent in the primary. They used tools later wielded against Reardon’s foes: social media, anonymous attack websites, false identities and conspiracies.

Clues pointed to Hulten. Some Democratic Party leaders confronted Hobbs publicly and demanded he rein in his aide.

Hobbs refused. Hobbs said Hulten was free to do as he pleased during his own time, according to Kaufer and other local Democrats.

“These people try to destroy your personal life, not to run on the issues,” Kaufer said recently. “Then, this is the kind of government you get, what you have with Reardon now.”

Hobbs will not discuss Hulten’s performance, claiming state legal counsel told him to keep quiet because his former aide never signed a disclosure form allowing it.

“All I can tell you is that he worked here,” Hobbs said.

Hobbs kept close with Hulten. On his second day working for Reardon, Hulten emailed his former boss, telling him, “I think you would thrive here.”

Later that week, the junior staffer sent coworkers an email making fun of Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson. He attached a photo of the mayor with his mouth agape as he spoke at a senior housing complex. The subject line read “caption contest.”

“He looks like a Fedelta Care client!” Hulten wrote. “I don’t think they’ll be using this on one of his brochures lol.”

As the months passed, Hulten exhibited other questionable behavior. He failed to answer constituent concerns, his attendance was spotty, and he wrote emails seeking discounts and other perks, citing his government position. Hulten’s repeated unauthorized use of county cars led Haakenson in 2012 to give him a written warning, telling him he would be fired if it happened again.

* * *

The first major controversy of Reardon’s 2011 campaign also led directly to Hulten. Hulten’s home address turned up in a state election watchdog complaint filed against Reardon’s opponent, Republican state Rep. Mike Hope of Lake Stevens. Hulten was digging up dirt on Hope during business hours. Reardon defended Hulten and suggested his aide was being set up. The state Public Disclosure Commission recently opened its own investigation of Hulten’s workplace campaign activities.

Video: Labyrinth of influence
Read about the digital maze used to harass and conduct surveillance on Aaron Reardon’s political rivals.

Reardon easily won a third term. Victory came despite news of a Washington State Patrol investigation into allegations Reardon used public money to pursue out-of-town trysts with a mistress.

Reardon denied breaking any rules. His government phone bills, however, listed hours of calls with the woman, a county social worker he’d known since high school. Reardon had no job-related reason to be yakking with her, sometimes for hours during the work day.

As the investigation progressed, she provided Seattle media with the tawdry details of the affair. The eight-month probe documented Reardon’s embarrassing purchase of a hotel “intimacy kit” on a county credit card.

It was determined that, except for a $6 taxi ride, everything had been paid for by private sources. The biggest funder was a national Democratic think-tank that was grooming Reardon as a rising political star.

Patrol detectives, working with Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks, ultimately decided Reardon’s travel records contained insufficient evidence to bring any criminal charges.

Things settled down. Reardon’s wife stuck with him. His lawyer pronounced him “exonerated,” even as state election watchdogs opened their own probe of evidence that Reardon repeatedly used public resources during his campaign. They continue to investigate.

Still, it seemed the worst was over.

* * *

In July 2012, six months into Reardon’s final term, the county began receiving records requests from an “Edmond Thomas” with a company called Rue Des Blancs-Manteaux LLC. The demands for records, larded with threats at litigation, focused on about 20 county employees. Significantly, the records requests targeted a number of people who had cooperated with the earlier State Patrol investigation. It is against the law to harass witnesses in criminal investigations.

Reardon, through a spokesman, denied that anyone in his office was involved.

That wasn’t true. Nor was it true, as Reardon later claimed, that the aides behind the requests, Hulten and executive assistant Jon Rudicil, only engaged in the activity on their own time and without using any county resources.

Hulten sent records requests during work hours. Rudicil — Hobbs’ brother-in-law — was on the county payroll to function as public records officer for the executive. At the same time, Rudicil also arranged for a courier to pick up the records on behalf of Edmond Thomas, so Hulten would not have to reveal himself. Rudicil also warned county workers to move faster to meet Edmond Thomas’ demands — which were Hulten’s demands — or they would get the county sued.

All along, Reardon was monitoring the requests. In late October, he even traded email with Hulten and Rudicil about resisting any legislation that could limit anonymous public records requests.

It’s unclear in records released so far whether Reardon at that time knew Hulten was “Edmond Thomas.” There is no question Hulten used county equipment for the ruse.

At 11:46 a.m. on Nov. 2, Hulten used a county-owned computer to write Reardon as someone from Rue Des Blancs-Manteaux LLC.

“Good morning Mr. Reardon,” began the message, which was recovered in April from Hulten’s county email account. “We write today on behalf of our client or clients currently engaged in a series of Public Records requests with Snohomish County. The purpose of this communication is to alert you to some concerns we have with the County’s internal handling of our client(s) requests.”

“Edmond” was bothered that Herald reporters were nosing around. He wanted Reardon to somehow intervene.

The memo also detailed what Hulten proclaimed was evidence of a supposed conspiracy involving county prosecutors and the journalists covering Reardon.

Reardon tried to establish distance when Hulten and Rudicil were later revealed to be the people responsible for the Edmond Thomas activity. He refused to make himself available for questions the day before the story broke. That eliminated an opportunity to determine how much Reardon knew about his aides’ actions before they were linked to scandal. A spokesman said Reardon was too busy for an interview. The executive’s official schedule, released months later, showed Reardon spent much of the morning meeting with people for coffee and had open hours in the office during midday.

Reardon ultimately released a statement saying Hulten had apologized to him for any embarrassment caused by news coverage. The executive also made clear he condoned his employees’ behavior, reasoning that the records laws are there for anyone to use, including people on the county payroll.

Others saw the situation differently.

Using government time and resources to snoop on perceived enemies is “just about as egregious as it gets, in my opinion,” said Dotzauer, the political consultant.

Whether Reardon was directly involved doesn’t change his responsibility, Dotzauer said.

“Setting that tone of leadership at any level of government is wrong,” Dotzauer said. “You’re the captain of the ship.”

Hulten and Rudicil both were placed on administrative leave after the King County Sheriff’s Office began investigating. Rudicil remained in that position when Reardon left office Friday.

When the scandal broke, Hulten almost immediately sought “whistle-blower” protection, claiming his Edmond Thomas activities had revealed evidence of a wide conspiracy against Reardon involving prosecutors, politicians and journalists.

An employment attorney’s independent review of Hulten’s complaint determined there was no merit to his “whistle-blower” allegations.

Things got more complicated for Hulten when porn and homemade sexually explicit images of himself and a former girlfriend were discovered on a county hard drive. Files containing “background checks” on County Council members also were found.

Hulten eventually resigned, saying he expected to be fired over the porn, yet insisting he wasn’t responsible. He didn’t leave without first threatening Haakenson and others at the county that he intends to press a variety of lawsuits — including a case he said he can bring over how the county processed records he sought as “Edmond Thomas.”

“… I think you probably know that there is a bigger explanation behind my actions,” Hulten wrote in a text to Haakenson. “I didn’t do it for fun. And I always always always was subordinate to the guy that hired me.”

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