County office’s past sexual complaints come to light

EVERETT — Long before he was fired for exposing himself while in a drunken stupor on a golf course, Snohomish County’s former planning director and his staff were at the center of workplace complaints about sexual harassment.

Nothing happened. The county official responsible for investigating harassment saw no need to act after probing several complaints.

“They were found to be unsubstantiated and dismissed,” said Mark Knudsen, an attorney who investigates the county’s workplace complaints.

There were five investigations involving the planning department from 2006 to 2009. In each case, Knudsen told County Executive Aaron Reardon’s office he’d concluded the complaints were unfounded.

Planning director Craig Ladiser was hired by Reardon. The county executive on Wednesday wasn’t available to answer questions about the management issues raised by the harassment complaints that came up on Ladiser’s watch. Reardon spokesman Christopher Schwarzen said his boss kept clear of the complaints in keeping with county policies.

“The Executive Office does not intervene in the investigations so as to maintain the independence and integrity” of the work done by the county’s equal employment opportunity office, he said.

For years before the county fired Ladiser, planning department employees had been chaffing at perceived sexism, according to complaints.

The Herald obtained the records under public disclosure in November. The more than 600 pages released were mainly transcripts of interviews that Knudsen conducted with potential witnesses.

A separate records request by the newspaper also revealed that Ladiser’s second in command had sent photographs of topless women from his county e-mail account in late 2008 and 2009. Knudsen said he was unaware of those photos. He had investigated the man, Greg Morgan, for allegations of sexually harassing female employees.

For one government watcher, the combined impression left by repeated workers’ complaints, the raunchy e-mails and Ladiser’s bizarre exit from his job beg for further inquiry.

“It appears that there is a larger pattern at work here of allegations being ignored or not being addressed adequately,” said John Barnes, communications director for the Washington Policy Center, a Seattle-based nonprofit think tank. “Unless a whole bunch of people just have it in for these two guys.”

The concerns of one manager in the planning department in early 2007 led to a probe of whether Ladiser and Morgan were paying inappropriate attention to young, female employees and assigning them special jobs. Another employee filed a complaint in 2008 after being told his wife, also a county employee, was kissed on the neck by Morgan.

During the course of one investigation, another county employee mentioned a comment she said Morgan made after a female employee’s desk was moved near his:

“‘We’re gonna have trouble keeping everybody away from her while she’s out there,’” she recalled him saying. “‘Thanks for putting her down (here) so I can watch her as I’m in the office.’”

By the time that complaint arose, Morgan was on his way out the door, part of a wave of layoffs that hit planners last spring.

“There was nothing to do with respect to Mr. Morgan because he had already left the county,” Knudsen said.

Morgan’s boss, Ladiser, wasn’t far behind.

In August, Ladiser was fired by Reardon after an investigation found that a drunken Ladiser exposed his genitals to a female employee of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties at a golf tournament the home-construction group hosted in Redmond.

The tournament was in June. In July, the county launched an investigation into the golf-course incident after the woman from the Master Builders asked them why nothing was being done. The county fired Ladiser after a law firm substantiated her claims.

Ladiser could not be reached Wednesday. He previously has blamed his conduct on alcohol abuse.

Reardon hired Ladiser to lead the county planning department in 2004. Ladiser had previously worked for the county from 1986 to 1994. Between his county jobs, Ladiser worked for the city of Seattle, which said it had no record of misconduct.

Morgan, reached by phone Wednesday, said he could not comment on the advice of a county attorney. The county faces potential legal headaches.

Between 2006 and 2009, five employees filed complaints about harassment in the planning department. The task of looking into them fell to Knudsen, the county’s Equal Employment Opportunity officer.

Though anybody can appeal directly to the executive’s office if they aren’t satisfied with Knudsen’s findings, none did, he said.

He did not find the number of complaints excessive.

“I don’t necessarily consider that to be a questionable number,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it happens all the time, but it’s not unusual.”

Some say that creating a county Human Rights Commission would go a long way toward helping anyone in Snohomish County resolve harassment complaints, whether or not they work for the county government.

“I think that any employee has a reluctance to try to seek redress for discrimination,” said Pamela Van Swearingen, an Edmonds attorney who has worked with the Snohomish County Citizens Committee for Human Rights. “There is a worry that they could lose their job, or their performance could become an issue where it wasn’t at some point in the past.”

The proposed commission would examine reports of retaliation and discrimination in government, housing and the workplace. A draft plan for creating the commission has been submitted to the County Council, though little has happened publicly since summer.

The complaints made directly to Knudsen aren’t the only charges of harassment against the planning department.

In October 2008, a former planning department employee filed a $500,000 claim for damages against the county. The claim is often a precursor to a lawsuit.

Debbie McPherson has worked for the county for more than 26 years, including four years as the planning department’s human resources manager. She now works as assistant clerk for the board of equalization.

In her complaint, McPherson alleges suffering from sexual harassment and retaliation for whistle blowing.

“Greg Morgan and others engaged in sexual and hostile comments to and about women, older workers, disabled workers and minorities along with other inappropriate and unlawful conduct,” her claim says.

McPherson said she has also filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465,

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