Lake Stevens police officer fired after ‘last chance’

LAKE STEVENS — The last chance didn’t last long.

On Dec. 31, the city of Lake Stevens fired a police officer who had been working for months under a “last-chance” employment agreement.

A new internal investigation in late 2013 determined officer James Wellington again violated department policies, City Administrator Jan Berg said Monday. The new violation was related to Wellington’s “search and seizure responsibilities,” Berg said.

The latest violation, in addition to “previous discipline issues and past work performance,” led to his termination, Berg said.

Wellington had been the subject of at least six internal investigations since 2009, according to public records obtained by The Herald in February 2013. His discipline files showed he’d been in trouble for sending a threatening e-mail, showing up at work smelling of alcohol, abusing sick leave, not telling the truth and misusing his city uniform allowance to purchase a backup handgun. In addition, Wellington was prosecuted for a drunken disturbance inside a hotel at Yellowstone National Park in 2012.

The most recent internal investigation also involved allegations against another officer, but those claims were not sustained, Berg said. She declined to name the second officer.

The new investigation came up in court in October because Wellington and the second officer were listed as potential witnesses in the upcoming trial against the man accused in the June 1 drive-by shooting death of 15-year-old Molly Conley.

At the time, prosecutors and Erick N. Walker’s defense attorney sparred over how much information should be disclosed in court regarding Wellington’s credibility issues.

Police officers often can challenge their termination, particularly under terms of labor contracts. But Wellington’s last-chance agreement, earlier obtained by The Herald under state public records laws, says that if he was terminated for a policy violation, he would have “no recourse whatsoever.”

The agreement makes an exception if there was not a “preponderance of the evidence” regarding the new misconduct.

The agreement also says that if Wellington was fired, and the termination is taken to arbitration, the arbitrator’s ruling cannot undo discipline decisions, the documents show. Local cities have been mindful of cases in Washington where arbitrators have reinstated police officers who lost their jobs after misconduct investigations.

As part of Wellington’s agreement, the Lake Stevens officers guild agreed to drop a previous unfair labor complaint.

Berg on Monday said she could not discuss Wellington’s post-employment plans.

Wellington and fellow officer Steve Warbis have drawn public scrutiny for their alleged behavior. Those troubles bubbled up to the surface when former police chief Randy Celori was paid to leave quietly in fall 2012. The city also is fighting at least three ongoing lawsuits related to police matters, one of which was filed by Warbis.

For months now, the city has been overhauling the police department, which remains without a permanent chief.

At the moment, the city is recruiting to fill a lieutenant’s position to oversee a new Division of Professional Standards, Berg said. The job includes investigating alleged misconduct and complaints from the public. The new position was approved for the 2014 budget.

The latest internal investigation involving Wellington and another officer was a direct result of the restructuring efforts, Berg said.

Police Cmdr. Dan Lorentzen, who’s been serving as interim chief since Celori’s departure, has been working with the guild to enforce policies put in place in 2013. The new policies came after an outside group of police-management experts determined that the Lake Stevens Police Department’s internal investigation system was “broken.”

These days, “potential policy violations are coming forward and are being reviewed,” Berg said.

Wellington, who turned 41 on Monday, worked for the city about seven years.

The Herald sought Wellington’s discipline records after the city paid a Marysville man $100,000 to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit involving Wellington and Warbis.

Last month, Warbis filed a claim against the city, asking for a seven-figure payout for damage to his reputation. Warbis alleges that city officials harmed him in how they responded to media inquiries, the civil rights lawsuit and a 2012 incident in which an off-duty Warbis was involved in a bar brawl in Everett.

The city is fighting Warbis’ claim.

Under the 2014 budget, the police department is authorized to have 26 commissioned police officers to serve the city of about 28,000.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449, rking@heraldnet.com.

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