EVERETT — An administrator who worked under recently retired Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe has accused his former boss of presiding over a hostile workplace rife with sexually charged banter.
Bob Lenz, 61, filed a legal claim for damages in late December, a possible step toward suing his employer. Lenz alleges that Roe and other workplace managers did not rein in employees who were out of line, then retaliated when Lenz tried to take action.
The claim seeks compensation and reforms related to unfair treatment that Lenz said was linked to his age and gender.
“Plaintiff was often intimidated or made to be afraid of suffering the loss of his job or other repercussions if he were to complain about the atmosphere of discrimination and harassment,” the document says.
A retired state trooper and Army veteran, Lenz has worked for the county since 2005. The allegations date to at least 2008, before Roe took charge of the office.
Roe strongly disputed Lenz’s account.
“The bulk of the allegations made against me, and the County, are either completely false and untrue, or grossly twisted and distorted,” he wrote in an email. “At some point, truth and context will win out as they usually do, and I look forward to that day. I have always been completely open and honest with the press, the public, and everyone else. That has worked well for me over the course of my career.”
He said he would have more talking to do in court.
Roe, 59, retired at the end of December. He had worked in the office for more than 30 years, first as a deputy criminal prosecutor before being appointed to the elected prosecutor’s post in 2009. He won re-election twice, as a Democrat, but opted against seeking another term.
“Shortly after Roe’s appointment, the culture in the office began to change rapidly,” Lenz’s claim states. “It became a ‘good old boys club’ where rules were consistently broken.”
Lenz catalogues a litany of crass phrases that reportedly came from Roe’s mouth. Among them: a penchant for homophobic slurs, sometimes used in a jocular manner. Roe also used derogatory terms about women, Lenz asserts.
A Viagra Christmas ornament routinely appeared on office desks as a joke, and Roe’s desk displayed a coffee mug shaped like female genitalia, according to the claim.
After Lenz discussed human resources issues with a female assistant who had been widowed, he claims Roe inquired if the two of them had struck up a relationship, “‘now that her husband is dead and (she is) very vulnerable.’”
When Roe heard that a deputy prosecuting attorney who is a lesbian planned to have a baby with her partner, Lenz claims his boss told him, “she can’t get her wife pregnant so you must’ve done it.”
Lenz alleges that Roe forbade him from speaking to deputy prosecutors after trying to report harassment between two other employees. The situation, as related in the claim, involved a supervisor who told a subordinate who just had a miscarriage that it was “inconvenient for the office when women get pregnant.”
The claim describes comments about female attorneys’ bodies and using the term “cow” for a woman deputy prosecutor who had just given birth.
Lenz claims Roe improperly handled situations involving employees with medical conditions and was dismissive about a request for a gender-neutral bathroom.
Prosecutor Adam Cornell, who took over for Roe this month, issued a response to the allegations.
“Mr. Lenz’s claims are focused upon the comments and other conduct of my predecessor and, frankly, describe conduct that is highly inappropriate in any workplace,” Cornell wrote. “I consider it particularly important that a prosecuting attorney’s office, which the public looks to for the enforcement of the laws, must operate at the highest level of professionalism and respect. I am already aware that some of these events did not occur as described by Mr. Lenz.”
Lenz continues to be employed as chief of operations, though probably not for long. Cornell’s restructuring plan requires that an attorney carry out those duties, and Lenz isn’t an attorney.
“Mr. Lenz has alleged that he was wrongfully terminated by me because of his age,” Cornell wrote. “This is not true. Leading up to and after my election as prosecuting attorney I made the decision to structure my management team differently …”
Cornell told Lenz he could continue working through March 31.
Cornell said those discussions occurred about a month before Lenz filed his claim. Since then, Lenz attended staff meetings, spoke at Roe’s retirement party and attended Cornell’s swearing-in ceremony, according to Cornell and others who were present.
“The fact that Mr. Lenz has made claims or threatened a lawsuit will not impact my professional relationship with him,” Cornell wrote. “He has a legal right to do so, and employees are encouraged to come forward if they believe their legal rights have been violated in any way.”
In years of courtroom battles, Roe earned a reputation as a compassionate and hard-nosed deputy prosecutor. He sought justice for families in the aftermath of some of the worst crimes in local history: murders, rapes and other acts of violence. In the halls of government, an outsize personality has occasionally rubbed people the wrong way. He expresses himself in frank and sometimes profane language.
The Lenz allegations come months after a deputy prosecutor from the office drunkenly groped a female colleague in a Lake Chelan hotel room during a work conference. Roe fired the deputy prosecutor, who was later sentenced to four days in jail for misdemeanor assault.
In his claim, Lenz said he was admonished for supporting an independent investigation against another deputy prosecutor for his behavior that night.
The claim requests a court injunction to prevent similar workplace conduct in the future. It asks the court to mandate policies, practices and programs that provide equal employment opportunities.
Lenz asks to be compensated for out-of-pocket expenses, emotional pain and other damages.
Much of the claim describes offensive comments directed at others. It’s unclear how they might substantiate any discrimination Lenz himself may have faced as a middle-aged man.
The statement says Roe used the term “boy” to refer to John Lovick, the former county executive and sheriff who is African American, and continued using it after being told to stop. Lenz worked with Lovick as a state trooper and has campaigned for him. Lovick is now an elected state House representative.
Lenz says attempts to address problematic behavior were thwarted. His claim states that he and others raised concerns in a 2017 survey about the work environment, including Roe’s actions, but no investigation was undertaken. He said he twice tried to report problems to the county’s Equal Employment Opportunity officer, without success. The claim suggests the EEO officer mistreated Lenz during their second encounter.
To handle his claim, Lenz hired an attorney who’s well-acquainted with sexual harassment issues.
Robin Williams Phillips, a Seattle-based specialist in employment law, has reached several settlements with Snohomish County. Two involved groups of women at the Denney Juvenile Justice Center in 2004 and 2014. In a separate case from last year, Phillips represented two women who settled with the county for $350,000 as part of a larger agreement to address allegations of inappropriate conduct against a male human services supervisor.
One of Phillips’ other clients is the former high-performance director for the Seattle Mariners, Lorena Martin. Martin’s suit alleges racial and gender discrimination by the baseball team’s top management, including negative comments about Latinos.
Lenz’s claim is drafted as a turnkey lawsuit that’s ready to file at any moment. The county has 60 days to try to reach a settlement. After that, Lenz could sue.
“That’s the intention,” Phillips said. “We intend to file it on the 61st day. He has a lot to say, and I don’t necessarily think that he is interested in being silenced.”
Roe said he will wait for that possibility before addressing the allegations in greater detail.
“I’m sorry to have to be more circumspect in this situation, but that’s what the circumstances require,” he said.
The damage claim was filed Dec. 27.