This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
If Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam is feeling at all vindicated by the failure of the recall campaign against him, perhaps news that he’s the subject of a federal investigation has provided something of a reality check.
The Department of Justice inquiry stems from Washam’s retaliation against Sally Barnes, a high-ranking office employee who had complained about how Washam treated her.
Barnes, who cited “intolerable working conditions” when she resigned in March 2010, is one of the employees suing Washam and Pierce County for damages. A fifth has reached a settlement.
The DOJ investigation – which grew out of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determination that Washam likely had violated Barnes’ civil rights – could go away if Barnes reaches a settlement with Pierce County. Or the DOJ could continue investigating – and even sue the county – if it’s not satisfied with the terms of the settlement.
Listen carefully, and you’ll hear the cash register ringing up yet more costs for Pierce County taxpayers, thanks to its rogue assessor-treasurer.
Washam has put Pierce County into an untenable position: can’t live with him, can’t get rid of him. The preferred way to oust a troublesome elected official is to have the voters do it – through recall or by rejecting him the next time he runs for office. Given the failure (barely) of the recall effort, there’s little that can be done until next November unless Washam commits a felony.
He may have done just that. State law (RCW 9A.76.180) says that “intimidating a public servant” is a class B felony. Among its definitions of a threat is accusing a person of a crime and exposing a secret.
Washam did both to Barnes: He exposed her identity by posting her whistle-blower complaint on his website, and he accused her of several crimes as part of his vendetta against his predecessor, Ken Madsen. An investigation found that Barnes had done nothing wrong.
The county could seek to oust Washam on that charge, but that’s probably not much of an option at this point, given the additional legal costs and the length of time a court case would take. Washam has less than 15 months left in his term, so it probably makes more sense to just hope he won’t do anything during that time to trigger more lawsuits.
The DOJ investigation could have at least one positive unintended consequence: keeping Washam so busy trying to defend himself that he leaves the running of his office to the professional staff that was there before he took office and will be there long after he’s been unelected from it.