Analyst says he was forced to boost officials’ car stipends

EVERETT — A Snohomish County financial analyst claims he was pressured in 2013 to inflate the amount of money that elected officials receive for car reimbursements.

James Lee filed a complaint in March describing how he boosted compensation by more than $250 per month. By basing the rates on more expensive cars from the county’s fleet and covering the full tab for car insurance, Lee said he increased the number from $317.07 per month to $569.32 — an annual difference of more than $3,000.

“I generated that reimbursement level and I can assure you it is completely fraudulent with no basis in law or common sense,” Lee wrote.

Eight of the county’s 11 eligible elected officials claim the reimbursement, according to the executive’s office. They are: all five County Council members, Assessor Cindy Portmann, Auditor Carolyn Weikel and Treasurer Kirke Sievers. Three do not: Executive John Lovick, clerk Sonya Kraski and Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe.

The sheriff uses a police vehicle and does not receive a car stipend.

Lee sent his complaint to Lovick, then-Deputy Executive Mark Ericks and County Council members.

The county hired private investigator Daphne Schneider, of Seattle, to look into the allegations. Schneider’s contract was capped at $10,000. Her Aug. 18 report found “no improper government action.”

Lee received a copy last week.

“The investigator, if she’s weighing the evidence equally, I’m not sure how she came to the conclusion she did,” he said. “In order for her to reach that conclusion I have to be lying about everything. And I have no motive other than coming forward and telling it like it is.”

Lee, 39, has been a county analyst for more than seven years. He worked in politics in 2003, when he managed Aaron Reardon’s first, and ultimately successful, campaign for county executive. For part of 2004, Lee was hired to work a temporary county job as an economic development coordinator. He rejoined the county workforce in 2008.

Lee’s allegations about the car-reimbursement rate stem from November 2013 when he made calculations for payments during the coming year.

It was his second year calculating the rates. The previous year, he had relied on old formulas in use before he transferred to the Fleet Services Division from the Public Works Department. He decided to re-create the rates from scratch.

As Lee studied the numbers, he said he “realized the methodology was intentionally warped to inflate the reimbursement amount.”

County code says the stipend must be based on the average monthly cost of a standard-size county fleet vehicle, including depreciation, maintenance, insurance and fuel. Fleet services, which is managed by the county executive, calculates new rates every year. The County Council approves the final numbers.

The stipend was $547.65 in 2013.

Under the old formula, Lee said taxpayers were picking up 100 percent of the estimated depreciation of elected officials’ personal vehicles “over a very short life cycle” of six years. He brought that up in an email to supervisors. County fleet vehicles, he said, generally stay in use at least twice that long.

Supervisors told Lee that the Finance Department, also under the executive’s office, needed to review the change.

“They will need to alert (Deputy Executive) Mark Ericks of the drop in rates so he is aware,” a supervisor wrote.

Budget manager Brian Haseleu told the investigator that Lee’s proposed 30 percent decrease in the vehicle stipend “forced us to delve deeper.”

When Lee calculated a rate of $401.97, that also met with skepticism.

To please his bosses, Lee said he got creative. He based the compensation on small- to medium-size SUVs, such as a Ford Escape, instead of less-expensive sedans, such as a Ford Taurus. On top of that, Lee said he chose the eight most expensive small SUVs from the fleet.

A supervisor later told the investigator that small SUVs were a valid starting point for the rates. He also said he was under the impression that the executive’s office had given his department a directive to produce a higher number.

Lee said he had misgivings about the number-crunching, but produced similar reimbursement rates last year because “I was still in good team player mode.

“I was trying to fix this from the inside,” he said. “Going public was an absolute last resort.”

The executive’s office declined to comment on Lee’s allegations and referred questions to the Human Resources Department. HR director Bridget Clawson said policies that guarantee whistle-blower confidentiality prevented her from discussing the complaint.

Along with approving new reimbursement rates, the County Council in late 2013 added the deputy executive as the only non-elected official eligible for the following year’s car stipend. Ericks at the time said there was a misunderstanding and he had wanted to add other top managers in addition to himself.

A year later, as a majority of the council began to feud with Ericks, they removed him from the list of eligible officials.

Yearly parking costs of $1,050 were added to the reimbursement formula for 2014, then removed for 2015 when a county civil attorney said that wasn’t allowed under county code.

The monthly vehicle reimbursement for elected officials now stands at $560.

Car allowances for elected officials vary by jurisdiction. Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson receives $150 every two weeks. Pierce County’s seven County Council members can claim $685.65 per month.

King County compensates its nine County Council members on a per-mile basis, using federal rates. That’s something Lee suggested, but it’s not allowed under Snohomish County code. The 2015 Internal Revenue Service rate is 57.5 cents per mile.

Lee said he came forward to encourage reform. He said he’s not worried about the repercussions for his job.

“The only non- negotiable point for me is that the excessive reimbursement for elected officials must end,” he wrote in his complaint.

He wondered whether any elected officials would return the portions of the car stipend that he considers unjustified.

The investigator who reviewed his claim didn’t see things in the same light: “In summary, this is a situation where there can legitimately and reasonably be more than one way to interpret and apply County Code, and such is the case here.”

Next year’s car allowance rates are due for review and approval by the council this fall.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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