Ericks’ role in land-use decisions under investigation

EVERETT — Snohomish County authorities have asked an outside police agency to investigate claims that a top administrator pressured staff to approve development permits.

Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe on Wednesday said he moved swiftly after reading allegations leveled against Deputy Executive Mark Ericks in a report the County Council released last week.

While the private attorney’s report focused on inappropriate comments Ericks made about three county councilmen, it included a recommendation to follow up on information from a “credible source” who claimed Ericks had meddled in land-use decisions. The report provided no specifics.

“It was instantly apparent to me that these new allegations, if true, were potentially criminal conduct that needed further investigation by a competent law enforcement agency,” Roe said in a prepared statement. “I immediately arranged for that to take place, and an investigation commenced at that time and is ongoing.”

Roe declined to name the agency. He said his office is not guiding or advising investigators and will have nothing more to say.

Reached Wednesday, Ericks said he, too, wants to know more about the accusations.

“I have no idea what this is about,” he said.

Ericks said he’s not involved in any land development or construction business and neither are his family members. In other words, he wouldn’t benefit from county land-use decisions.

His boss, Executive John Lovick, wrote to the County Council on Wednesday requesting any available information about what Ericks reportedly may have done. Lovick said he has yet to hear back.

“I have been kept totally in the dark,” he said. “If you’re going to make allegations, you should at least come out and say what the allegations are.”

Lovick questioned the way the issue has been handled. “It’s suspicious to me, very suspicious,” he said.

Pressure has been mounting about the cryptic reference to a land-use issue since Feb. 3, when the council released the results of an investigation into comments Ericks had made about the three county councilmen: Terry Ryan, Dave Somers and Ken Klein.

In December, those three, a majority of the council, voted to authorize paying Seattle attorney Tom Fitzpatrick $15,000 to determine if statements attributed to Ericks violated the law or county policies. Fitzpatrick previously had worked as a deputy prosecutor and administrator for the county.

Most of the 24-page report analyzed comments Ericks allegedly made during meetings this fall, including wishing he could kill Ryan “if it wasn’t for jail time,” and laughing at a joke about drawing up death certificates for Ryan and Somers.

Fitzpatrick determined that Ericks’ conduct had created a hostile work environment and that a reasonable person could consider his comments threatening. The report, however, identified no breach of law or county policies, partly because the comments were directed at public figures and most who heard them understood that Ericks wasn’t serious.

Under the county charter, Ericks’ position as an at-will employee also exempts him from county personnel rules. For most other county employees, the same behavior would have constituted misconduct, Fitzpatrick wrote.

The report briefly noted another issue that Fitzpatrick said deserved further scrutiny.

Fitzpatrick said “a credible source” claimed “that Ericks, using tactics that might be characterized as intimidating, has pressured for expedited treatment or favorable approval of development permits and/or plat approvals for certain individuals and/or entities.”

The report gives no other details — what projects are supposedly involved or what was credible about the unnamed source.

Within days, two organizations that often find themselves on the opposite side of development issues were united in urging the county to take action.

One was the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, the other Futurewise, a group that promotes environmentally sensitive development practices.

“When allegations are made that may call into question the integrity of county processes, we believe it is incumbent on the county to investigate those claims and take whatever action is necessary to maintain and restore trust,” wrote Shannon Affholter, the builders’ executive director.

Affholter sent the letter Feb. 5 to Somers, who is chairman of the county council, and sent a copy to Lovick.

A letter from Seattle- based Futurewise’s director of planning and law, Tim Trohimovich, went out the next day.

“Snohomish County owes potential lot purchasers, the development community, and the public complete, timely, and transparent answers to these charges,” Trohimovich wrote. “We urge the county to begin the necessary investigation immediately.”

Both groups made it clear that they’re not rushing to judgment about the merit of the allegation.

Roe said the new investigation is unrelated to the alleged hostile comments that form the bulk of Fitzpatrick’s report. He also said that he began approaching law enforcement agencies about investigating long before the builders and land-use activists began writing letters.

“My hope is that everyone will cooperate with the investigation so the matter can be cleared up in a way that only facts and the truth can accomplish,” he said.

Scott North contributed to this report.

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

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