No real threats made by deputy county exec, report finds

EVERETT — In a fit of frustration last fall, Snohomish County’s top administrator let fly some inappropriate remarks about three county councilmen in a roomful of employees.

However out of line, no one at the Oct. 28 cabinet meeting believed Deputy Executive Mark Ericks seriously wanted to shoot anyone. That’s one of the takeways from an investigation the County Council hired a private attorney to perform.

“I conclude that no laws or policies were violated,” attorney Tom Fitzpatrick wrote.

The council released Fitzpatrick’s report Tuesday.

Because Ericks, as an at-will employee, is exempt from some county personnel rules, and because the people he made his comments about are public officials, grounds for pursuing legal action are shaky at best, Fitzpatrick determined.

Council Chairman Dave Somers said the report’s findings should in no way “be misconstrued as excusing the deputy executive’s actions.” To him, they show why the council thought it necessary to enter into the $15,000 contract with Fitzpatrick to find out whether Ericks had subjected them to workplace harassment.

“The investigation substantiates what was reported to me, information that I then relayed to Executive Lovick,” Somers said. “I remain deeply disappointed in the actions of Deputy Executive Ericks and the inaction of Executive Lovick to date.”

While Lovick disagreed with spending money on the council’s investigation, he said it supports his own conclusion that Ericks made no threats.

“I am pleased with the outcome of the investigation,” he said.

The council hired Fitzpatrick in December. The Seattle attorney once worked for Snohomish County as a deputy prosector and in other roles.

Somers wrote a formal complaint to Lovick about Ericks on Nov. 18. The council chairman said he feared the executive wouldn’t do anything about his concerns, which they’d previously discussed in private.

On Dec. 4, Lovick announced that his own inquiry found no evidence of threats by his deputy, who’s also a longtime friend and fellow career law-enforcement officer.

The following week, the council split 3-2 to hire Fitzpatrick.

At the time, Councilman Brian Sullivan, one of the dissenters, said: “I think we need to put this behind us and shake hands and move forward. I just don’t see ratcheting this up as being productive.”

In his report, Fitzpatrick tried to establish what most likely happened during the Oct. 28 meeting, given varying recollections.

Employees he interviewed generally reported that Ericks had referred to County Councilman Terry Ryan as a “political terrorist” and to Councilman Ken Klein as a “sandwich maker,” in reference to Klein’s former job on the operations side of a food-services company.

Another allegation is that Ericks had laughed when the newly hired deputy executive of the medical examiner’s office, Dan Christman, made a joke about handing out death certificates during the same meeting. In some tellings of the event, the death-certificate remark referred to Ryan and Somers.

Christman, in Fitzpatrick’s view, made a bad attempt at humor, nothing more.

“I conclude he made a rookie mistake by making an ill advised comment,” he wrote.

While the attorney’s report found no clear legal violations in what Ericks or Christman said, it did recommend investigating other issues in more detail. One is the decision by Lovick’s administration to hire an employment attorney to sit in on the interviews Fitzpatrick conducted with staff.

The attorney in question, Everett-based Todd Nichols, acted as a witness, not as legal counsel.

Normally, county human resources director Bridget Clawson would have fulfilled that role, but she was a witness during the Oct. 28 meeting and had a conflict of interest, county spokeswoman Rebecca Hover said.

Nichols will be paid $325 an hour for his services, Hover said. The executive’s office hasn’t received the final bill.

Nichols is a former chairman for the Snohomish County Democrats. He was among the three nominees, with Lovick, whom county Democrats recommended in mid-2013 to replace Aaron Reardon as county executive.

The other follow-up issue involves allegations that Ericks might have improperly involved himself in land-use decisions. Fitzpatrick said he was approached by “a credible source” who 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 about the claim.

“This is something new to me,” Lovick said Tuesday. “I’m going to need more information to find out exactly what he was referring to.”

The attorney’s report makes sharp-eyed observations about the personalities involved — and the mess that Lovick and Ericks inherited when they took over after Reardon’s resignation.

Fitzpatrick described how much work the pair has had to do to address dysfunction that became part of the county government’s culture during the Reardon years. On top of that, there was the Oso mudslide.

The attorney described Lovick as “gracious, patient in answering my questions, generous with his time when he had a busy schedule, and generally forthcoming.” The report notes the executive “did not seem particularly detail oriented” and “failed to appreciate” the urgency when Somers tried to discuss Ericks’ comments in November.

Lovick, the former county sheriff and a career state trooper, was appointed county executive in 2013 and was elected to a special one-year term in office last year. Ericks left his job as the U.S. marshal overseeing Western Washington to be his second-in-command at the county.

Fitzpatrick describes Ericks as “personable, gregarious, passionate, and intelligent.” It also said he can be protective of Lovick and other Democrats and reacts defensively on policy issues.

Some of those characteristics have played into recent problems in the county. The county’s plans for a new $162 million courthouse remain in jeopardy, largely over miscommunication issues. Budget disagreements between the council and executive’s office late last year almost led to the state’s first county-level government shutdown.

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

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