A Tacoma hearing examiner has denied the city’s top domestic violence victims advocate’s appeal of a city investigator’s findings that she “knowingly misused her official city position and city funds” to help a client illegally flee the state with her kids in 2007.
In a 17-page ruling issued Tuesday, Examiner Rodney Kerslake cited inconsistencies between Gloria China Fortson‘s sworn testimony given during her appeals hearing last month, and her previous written statements and interviews with a city investigator.
He also found that Fortson’s explanations about a receipt showing she rented a van for her client to leave the state, in direct violation of a court order, weren’t believable.
“The Hearing Examiner finds … Fortson’s explanation to be implausible and finds that the documentary exhibit speaks for itself,” Kerslake wrote.
Kerslake then upheld the city’s findings.
“The appeal brought before the Hearing Examiner by China Fortson is HEREBY denied and the determination made by Tacoma City Manager Eric Anderson that China Fortson violated Tacoma’s City Code of Ethics … for misusing her official City position and City funds to procure special privileges for Keisha Jackson, is HEREBY affirmed,” Kerslake concluded.
With Kerslake’s ruling, Fortson, 54, the city’s lone full-time DV advocate since 1998, faces punishment up to losing her job. Anderson, the city manager, will make the disciplinary decision.
Anderson, who today declined to give a time-frame for when a decision might be made, said “the process has begun.”
“With this (ruling), our plan is to take appropriate disciplinary action,” he added. “I will not speculate or talk publicly about what any disciplinary decision of an employee may or may not be at this point.”
Fortson, who has remained in her $61,000 per year job pending the outcome of her appeal, could not immediately be reached for comment today. Her lawyer said she’ll appeal the case in court.
Fortson worked as an advocate on behalf of Puyallup resident Keisha Jackson after Jackson leveled abuse allegations in 2006 against her husband, Kelvin Jackson, during a tangled legal separation and custody dispute. Kelvin Jackson consistently has denied the allegations; a judge found that domestic violence did not apply in the civil case.
City investigator Tracy Storwick later found Fortson had violated the city’s ethics code by renting a van for Keisha Jackson to flee the state with her kids for months, directly violating a judge’s order. Keisha Jackson later was arrested in Florida and returned to Washington, where she later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor contempt of court charge.
Kerslake upheld Storwick’s conclusions.
“The Hearing Examiner found that Fortson knowingly used City funds to assist Keisha Jackson’s travel to Florida, travel that had no nexus to domestic violence,” Kerslake wrote in his decision.
“Thus, without a nexus to domestic violence, the City funds expended to rent Keisha Jackson a van to travel to Florida with the Jackson children and the rental of a hotel for Keisha Jackson to stay in SeaTac constitutes a knowing misuse of City funds by Fortson to secure special privileges for Keisha Jackson in violation of (city ethics codes).”
During her appeal, Fortson and her lawyer contended the Storwick’s investigation was biased, over-reaching, shoddy and jumped to conclusions based on no facts.
But Kerslake found Storwick’s testimony “straight-forward, consistent with the circumstances and to be credible.” Kerslake also found that Jerry Lee, a city EEO Officer who sat in on Storwick’s final interview of Fortson and whose notes supported the city investigator, was a credible witness who had “(n)o reason for any bias.”
Steve Downing, Fortson’s attorney, told me in a phone call today he was disappointed, but not surprised by Kerslake’s ruling. Characterizing the city’s investigation as a “witch hunt,” Downing said Fortson will likely appeal the case to Pierce County Superior Court.
“You had a city hearing examiner who is a city employee deciding the issue,” Downing said. “But I don’t believe in any way, shape or form that this is going to hold up in a court of law.”
We’ll have a full story in Thursday’s News Tribune. In the meantime, here’s Kerslake’s written ruling: