County manager’s lawsuit claims ‘hostile’ workplace under Roe

Mark Roe says the allegations are “either completely false and untrue, or grossly twisted and distorted.”

Mark Roe at the Snohomish County Courthouse on Dec. 13 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

Mark Roe at the Snohomish County Courthouse on Dec. 13 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

EVERETT — A manager in the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has followed through with a threat to sue his employer.

Bob Lenz, 62, recently filed the suit in King County Superior Court. The complaint airs the same allegations of age and gender discrimination raised in his earlier damage claim. The county is the only defendant.

Most of the allegations focus on the office culture under the former elected prosecutor, Mark Roe.

“Repeatedly and continuously during plaintiff’s employment, defendant subjected him to a sexually charged hostile work environment,” the suit says. “Managers at defendant’s workplace created an atmosphere such that plaintiff felt threatened and harassed.”

Roe earlier called the bulk of Lenz’s allegations “either completely false and untrue, or grossly twisted and distorted.” He said he looked forward to the day when “truth and context will win out.” Reached Tuesday, he stood by those previous statements.

Internal documents show that several other employees had expressed concerns about homophobic slurs and advancement opportunities for women.

Lenz, who stands to lose his job in a few weeks because of changes made by the new prosecutor, claims he suffered retaliation for confronting personnel issues. He alleges that his office was moved and his responsibilities taken away. A retired state trooper, he has worked for the office since 2005. He earns about $141,000 per year.

Roe, 59, served as prosecutor from 2009 until December. In the preceding decades, Roe earned a reputation as a charismatic speaker and tenacious courtroom presence who sought justice for the county’s worst crimes.

Prosecutor Adam Cornell ran unopposed in November and took office at the beginning of the year.

After the election, Cornell informed Lenz he wouldn’t be keeping him on as chief of operations. Lenz claims the prosecutor-elect told him “he was not contemporary,’” according to the suit.

Cornell has said that’s not true. Lenz’s job description was redefined, the prosecutor said, and now requires an attorney to carry out the duties. Lenz is not a lawyer.

Cornell disputed any suggestion that Lenz has faced ostracism during the past couple of months.

“Since Mr. Lenz’s claim for damages was filed, I and others in my office have continued to consult with him in his role and treat (him) with respect and kindness,” Cornell wrote Tuesday in an email. “Mr. Lenz’s lawsuit will not deter my colleagues or me from the good and important work we do every day to protect our community with skill and the highest level of professionalism.”

Cornell said that much of the conduct alleged in the legal documents would be “highly inappropriate in any workplace,” but added that some of the incidents did not occur as described.

The lawsuit and the associated damage claim detail a litany of purported interactions in the office. Among them, Lenz accuses Roe of addressing male colleagues with homophobic slurs.

A 2017 workplace satisfaction survey contains complaints from other employees along those lines. Responses came from 30 deputy prosecutors, though not everyone had negative experiences. The Daily Herald obtained a copy of the survey results through a public records request.

One attorney lamented that the tone of the banter eroded a feeling of mutual respect with Roe, even if the slurs were meant in jest.

“Try as I might, I’ve been unable to look past these comments and you should know that they are hurtful even though you intend no harm,” the attorney wrote.

Several women said they felt their desire to have children would hurt their careers.

“Women in this office have told me they are afraid to have children because they are afraid of how they will be treated in the office,” read one comment. “I have also noticed that the moms are the ones here on time and frequently putting in more hours, and yet the stigma and fear still (exist).”

One female attorney wrote, “I believe that being a woman of childbearing age is an impediment to my advancement within this office.”

Another employee said, “The sex-based aggression and inappropriate behavior doesn’t stop at Mark.”

Roe said Tuesday that he went ahead with the survey, knowing that some responses would be painful to hear.

“(W)hen I invited all employees to give anonymous feedback I knew at least some would be critical,” he said in an email. “I knew that going in. I went ahead with it anyway. I wanted the feedback, and think it was worthwhile.”

Lenz is being represented by Robin Williams Phillips, a Seattle attorney who specializes in employment law. Lenz is asking the court to impose an injunction to prohibit the county from engaging in the kinds of employment practices described in the lawsuit. He also is seeking monetary damages to be determined at trial.

The county has not responded in court.

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

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