Sheriff’s office pays $600K to settle public records lawsuit

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office has paid a corrections deputy $600,000 to settle a lawsuit for mishandling his public records request.

The deputy alleged that the sheriff’s office did not supply him any records for four years after receiving his request in 2010. He also accused the sheriff’s office of bungling deadlines and otherwise violating state public records laws.

County Executive John Lovick was sheriff when the request was made. The sheriff’s office admitted in a news release Wednesday that “the request was never properly processed or fulfilled.”

The lawsuit also shed light on problems in how the sheriff’s office was handling public records requests, Sheriff Ty Trenary said. That led to significant changes within the Public Disclosure Unit, he said.

In emails to deputy Charles Carrell, the sheriff’s office cited a lack of staffing and the fatal Oso mudslide for the delays. The slide prompted a large volume of public records requests.

The deputy remains employed in the county jail, sheriff’s spokeswoman Shari Ireton said.

Carrell’s 2010 request was for five years of county emails to and from the corrections officers guild’s vice president. Carrell was worried about being retaliated against because of conflicts within union leadership, he wrote. He served as the union president from 2005 to 2008 and claimed the new vice president was too close with Lovick.

The sheriff’s office did not respond to Carrell’s initial request for seven business days. State law requires a response within five business days.

Carrell sent numerous emails asking about the status of his unfilled request, then started calling the sheriff’s office every six months to check back, according to the lawsuit.

In March 2014, Carrell was told he would get the records by the end of April. The deadline was missed, as were several others; he received his first CD of records in August 2014. That CD didn’t work right and only eight emails were visible, the suit says. Much of those were blacked out, with the sheriff’s office citing attorney-client privilege for the redactions. Carrell argued that the sheriff’s office didn’t follow state law in justifying the exemptions.

A second installment was issued in December, and a third in March, according to the lawsuit. The sheriff’s office determined that more than 3,000 emails were responsive to Carrell’s request. Documents provided Wednesday don’t say how many of those have been released.

When Carrell filed a claim against the county in March, he argued that responsive records still had not been provided. He accused the sheriff’s office of acting “in bad faith” and being deceptive for closing his initial request and opening a new one without asking him. A lawsuit followed in King County Superior Court.

The settlement was signed June 30 and made public Wednesday in response to a public records request by The Herald. Both parties agreed not to discuss the settlement in public.

The same deputy in 2006 accused the county of retaliating against him for union activities. In that case, the state Public Employment Relations Commission dismissed most of the claim.

Snohomish County reached a record $3.9 million last year in payouts for legal settlements. Of that, at least $670,000 was related to the handling of public records requests.

The sheriff’s public disclosure unit for years has been plagued by backlogs and delays. It is common for requests to take months before records are disclosed.

At the same time they must respond to far-reaching requests that add up to thousands of documents. Such was the case of the man who demanded the office provide him copies “in whatever form available, of each and every document in your agency’s possession of any and every kind whatsoever without exception or limitation except as provided by narrow exception of law.”

His request stretched from that day — Nov. 18 — all the way back to July 4, 1776.

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

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