Investigation at Denney Juvenile Justice Center slams Gipson

EVERETT — A sprawling workplace investigation at Snohomish County’s Denney Juvenile Justice Center has documented sexually charged workplace behavior that could have serious repercussions for Everett City Councilman Ron Gipson, both as a public employee and a public figure.

Investigators concluded that Gipson, 57, dated at least one mother of a Denney juvenile detainee, creating a conflict of interest. Gipson says that conclusion is “absolutely not true.”

Gipson and other Denney employees were also found to have made sexually suggestive and racially inappropriate comments in violation of workplace rules. Similar forms of sexual harassment go back at least a decade at the juvenile justice center.

It’s Gipson’s name, however, that appears most consistently in 792 pages of reports obtained by The Daily Herald through state public records laws.

“As I’ve always said, we didn’t do this stuff,” Gipson said. “Innocent people have been hurt.”

Gipson, who brought binders full of documents to an interview this week, said he will respond more at another time. “There are a lot of irregularities and inconsistencies in the reports that I’ve seen,” he said.

Gipson was placed on paid leave in January 2014, one week after a woman corrections officer accused him of sexual harassment. Another juvenile corrections supervisor also was put on leave. He returned to work in May.

In February 2014, the county hired employment attorney Marcella Fleming Reed and her Mill Creek firm, MFR Law Group, to investigate various complaints.

The investigation already has cost taxpayers more than a half million dollars.

Gipson said he’s being targeted for his stature in the community. Some of his accusers claim he uses his standing to bully them. In office for 20 years, he’s Everett’s longest-serving City Council member. He’s up for re-election this year.

“They’re piling on me because I’m the big fish,” he said. “I’m the council member.”

Exhaustive review

The investigators had a lot on their plate. They ended up interviewing the entire juvenile corrections staff — 76 people — and conducted 171 interviews.

They eventually catalogued complaints from 13 different corrections officers and supervisors. They identified accusations against 22 people of various types of wrongdoing, from the trivial to the criminal.

The woman’s initial January 2014 complaint was followed a few weeks later by a damage claim, saying she and two other women were subjected to physical sexual harassment, slurs and an atmosphere of intimidation, and that they suffered retaliation when they attempted to notify managers.

They sought $450,000 each. The county settled their claim in December for $750,000.

After being placed on leave last year, Gipson and two supervisors complained that they were being subjected racism at work. In the report released this week, investigators determined that evidence didn’t support their discrimination complaint.

Another complaint was made by a white female corrections officer who said some of her black co-workers were mistreating her because of her race. Investigators determined her complaint also was unfounded.

Denney is run by Snohomish County Superior Court, which is taking the report’s findings seriously, said Marilyn Finsen, who assumed the job of Superior Court administrator in January.

“This is not just a matter of going back to work was usual,” Finsen said. “We have some cultural and systemic things to address.” In 2006, the county paid three different women juvenile corrections officers a $500,000 settlement for similar workplace problems involving different male co-workers.

Finsen doesn’t believe that safety or the well-being of any young detainees has been compromised. Denney can house up to 120 boys and girls younger than 18 for criminal and truancy cases.

“This was (about) staff relations, many times outside the workplace,” she said. She declined to say what discipline Gipson or others might face, if any. Under county policies, consequences could include coaching or training, reprimands, suspensions or firing.

The investigation has cost taxpayers $511,365 so far. That includes legal bills of $390,783. Another $120,582 has gone toward miscellaneous expenses, including clerical work and covering shifts while corrections staff sat for interviews.

Credibility doubted

The MFR lawyers’ report concluded that Gipson sexually harassed female co-workers and subjected them to racially offensive language. Investigators said Gipson had to know the conduct violated county policies and ignored a supervisor’s order to stop.

Female co-workers complained about Gipson making suggestive comments at work. They claimed he made references to “sweet, dark chocolate,” which they understood as innuendo.

A former UW football player, Gipson admits to engaging in locker-room talk at work.

“Am I guilty of bantering? Yes, I talk with the guys,” he said.

MFR lawyers spent nearly seven hours in April interviewing Gipson in the presence of his attorney. They found Gipson hard to believe, according to their report.

“MFR does not find Mr. Gipson credible because he made sweeping across-the-board denials of wrongdoing inconsistent with the weight of the evidence,” the report says. “By denying information MFR knew to be true, Mr. Gipson made it difficult to rely on the information he provided that might indeed be true.”

The report also finds credibility problems with many of the claims against Gipson. Gipson and some of his accusers were once close and often socialized together outside of work.

Investigators looked into more serious accusations from co-workers that Gipson subjected them to physical threats and even violence, but found those claims unsubstantiated — or too murky to reach any conclusion. Some of those allegations centered on events outside the workplace that were never relayed to managers, or only reported years later.

Hired in late 1996, Gipson is the second in seniority among all of Denney’s correctional officers. That gives him dibs on overtime shifts, which can earn him a respectable amount of cash — and, he said, the envy of co-workers. He has drawn $111,614 in salary and benefits for the 13-plus months he’s been on leave.

Gipson has served on the Everett City Council continuously since winning his first election in 1995. Married for more than 30 years, he has three children, from their late teens to early 30s.

The investigation has already taken a toll. “It’s been hell on my family,” he said. “I’ve just been maintaining my family.”

As a public employee, Gipson is entitled to a pre-disciplinary hearing before the county takes any action.

“All I want is a fair hearing,” he said. “If I lose, I’ll take it like a man.”

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

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