BRIER — An “uncomfortable, intolerable, inappropriate, and hostile workplace environment,” led to the Brier police chief’s departure last year, according to a lawsuit filed against the city last month.
Former police chief Michael Catlett’s complaint filed in Snohomish County Superior Court on Aug. 23 alleges years of harassment by city clerk-treasurer Paula Swisher. And he claims that atmosphere was fostered by city leaders, including current Mayor Dale Kaemingk, who failed to “conduct prompt and thorough investigations.”
An outside investigation last year, however, decided many of his claims were unsupported by the evidence. In a lengthy statement, the city’s attorney Mike Bolasina cited that inquiry in disputing Catlett’s version of events.
“Mayor Kaemingk and Ms. Swisher are dedicated professionals who are looking out for the best interest of the City,” the statement reads. “The City will answer the complaint, denying all the allegations that are false, and will defend against the allegations in court.”
Catlett’s attorney, Lisa Wood of the Olympia-based Cap City Law firm, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The first allegation of inappropriate behavior came shortly after Catlett accepted the police chief position in 2014. According to the lawsuit, Swisher told Catlett she hoped he would treat a particular officer better than the previous chief. She also urged him not to let then-Mayor Bob Colinas tell him how to supervise that officer. Catlett reported this to Colinas. No disciplinary action was taken.
That would be a sign of things to come, the complaint alleges.
From there, the lawsuit claims over a dozen incidents that may have violated city policy. They include Swisher reportedly adjusting her bra in Catlett’s office multiple times, reenacting sexually suggestive photos, telling Catlett how long since she last had sex, and that her husband wasn’t giving her romantic attention. Responses from Colinas included multiple instances of laughing, saying Swisher has “personal issues,” and telling the chief her behavior would be dealt with, according to the complaint.
Around September 2014, Swisher told Catlett she “runs the city,” discouraged him from directly reporting to Colinas and claimed she had access to all of the chief’s office files and computer, according to the complaint. Colinas told Catlett it would be dealt with. But there appeared to be no disciplinary action.
In a formal complaint to the mayor, Catlett alleged Swisher was using her position to “bully, harass, and intimidate him.” Colinas, who was replaced by Kaemingk in 2020, declined to comment.
The behavior continued, the lawsuit claims. In 2018, Swisher became frustrated about a police clerk’s complaint against her. So she grabbed Catlett’s office chair and reportedly hit it against the wall while making a sexually explicit comment about the police clerk.
After a dispute over a police employee wearing a mask, Catlett wrote a complaint to Kaemingk. In the October 2020 complaint, Catlett argued Swisher “abuses her authority.”
The chief pleaded with Kaemingk to take action.
“I enjoy working for this City and I look forward to a continuous long-term career with the City of Brier,” Catlett wrote.
No disciplinary action was taken, the lawsuit says.
In February of last year, the police chief filed another complaint with Kaemingk. In it, he expressed continued discomfort with Swisher’s behavior and claimed Kaemingk was trying to undermine him.
The city then contracted with the Seabold Group to investigate Catlett’s complaints. That firm is the same one the Monroe School District used to look into allegations of bullying by former Superintendent Justin Blasko this year.
After Catlett’s complaint in February, Kaemingk asked Swisher to avoid contact with the police chief, noting there was “clear animosity,” she told investigators. Swisher described her relationship with Catlett as professional, but said she never respected him.
The May 2021 report prepared by Kris Cappel, a Seattle lawyer with the Seabold Group, found many of Catlett’s allegations of sexual harassment were “not supported” by evidence. Many of the instances Catlett described had no witnesses, the report notes. And Swisher denied many of the allegations.
“The core issue appears to be that Chief Catlett does not care for Ms. Swisher and he does not want her involved in his department in any capacity,” the report reads.
Investigators also found some of Catlett’s complaints with regard to city leaders’ response to his allegations were unfounded.
“Notably, Ms. Cappel found no evidence that Ms. Swisher sexually harassed or discriminated against Mr. Catlett because he is male,” Bolasina, the city’s attorney, wrote in the statement. “On the issue of credibility, Ms. Cappel consistently found that Ms. Swisher’s account of what happened between them was more credible (than) Mr. Catlett’s, whose version of events often lacked logic, reasonableness, or corroboration.”
Catlett’s lawsuit, however, claims there were several issues with the Seabold Group’s report, including “a failure to consider relevant Equal Employment Opportunity policies, a failure to make observations and witness credibility determinations, a failure to conduct witness interviews in person, and a failure to indicate whether there were other relevant witnesses the investigator should interview.”
In July 2021, Catlett resigned from the police department, a move that caught city officials off guard. He is now running for Grays Harbor County Sheriff.
This isn’t the first time Swisher has faced complaints at work in Brier. In May 2005, she was fired from the city reportedly due to her behavior at a council meeting. But in 2008, she was hired back as city clerk-treasurer by a 5-2 city council vote, as The Daily Herald reported.
“She is the best choice for our community,” Mayor Colinas said at the time. “She is the person I want to work with.”
Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.
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