Franklin official faces allegations similar to details in 1986 case

By Annette Cary and Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 7, 2012 

PASCO -- The recent embezzlement accusations against Franklin County official Dennis Huston are strikingly similar to the details of a federal case in 1986 that ended with him sentenced to four years in prison.

While some information about Huston's past has come to light since the Public Works accounting and administration director was arrested Thursday, many questions remain.

And county officials, the state Attorney General's Office and Pasco police continue to investigate how Huston, 65, may have stolen more than $1 million from Franklin County over the past decade.

Both now and in 1986, Huston was accused of using his government employment to funnel taxpayer money to himself through a company that didn't exist. In 1986, he blamed the embezzlement on a drug problem, according to a newspaper report then. Thursday, he told police he also used money he allegedly stole from Franklin County to buy drugs, according to Benton Franklin Superior Court documents.

Huston remained in Franklin County jail Monday on $500,000 bail on suspicion of first-degree theft, money laundering and possessing cocaine.

The state Office of Attorney General has until this afternoon to file charges or he will be released. But charges can still be filed even after the 72-hour hold on Huston expires, said Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant.

Commission Chairman Brad Peck said commissioners will be looking into how the alleged theft of county money happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again.

"This never should have happened," he said.

County commissioners plan to examine why the public works has a separate accounting department than almost all the other county departments. Instead of going through accounting in the county Auditor's Office, Public Works has a separate department, which Huston led.

The investigation came to light during an internal audit conducted by the county auditor's office. Staff were verifying county vendors.

The accusations against Huston prompted Franklin County commissioners to hold a special meeting Monday morning.

County commissioners met for an hour behind closed doors to evaluate the complaints brought against Huston and the legal risks of possible actions. No decision was made after commissioners returned to an open meeting.

Peck said commissioners discussed options, depending on the investigation's outcome.

Huston was hired by Franklin County in May 1989, after apparently not serving the full four years of a prison term he was ordered to start on Jan. 5, 1987.

In 1986, Huston was working as the finance officer for the regional Bureau of Reclamation Office in Billings, Mont., according to information from The Billings Gazette.

He had worked for the federal government for 15 years, the last two of them in Billings, when he was fired May 1, 1986, the newspaper reported. Montana District U.S. Court records show he was indicted nearly four months later on three counts of theft of government money. By that time he was living in Spokane.

He was accused of making up a company and making three payments to it from the Bureau of Reclamation, The Billings Gazette said.

He entered a guilty plea Dec. 16, 1986, and admitted to stealing $141,925, according to the newspaper. At that time, he handed over $34,149, saying that was all the money he had. His job paid a salary of $43,000 a year.

His attorney said he was remorseful and that he had gone through drug rehabilitation before sentencing, according to the newspaper.

Federal court records available Monday show no additional restitution paid until November 1996 on the $107,775.73 still owed after the payment he made at sentencing.

In 1996, he started making payments of $150 most months -- with occasional payments of $300 or $600 -- through April 2002. Receipts recorded by the federal court total $12,400, not including one receipt in February 2000 for which no amount was listed.

While working in Franklin County, Huston now is accused of creating a bank account for Critzer Equipment, a company that closed in 2001. He had no association with the company when it operated. When he was arrested, he had a blank check with him for the account, according to a court document.

Huston said he was using money received from invoices for payments to Critzer Equipment for narcotics and had a small leather bag with what Pasco police believe is cocaine with him when he was arrested, according to a court document.

Huston has been placed on unpaid leave.

Eight other Public Works employees have been placed on paid administrative leave by the county. They are not accused of any wrongdoing. Among those on leave is Tim Fife, the county's public works director and engineer.

On Monday, Franklin County commissioners unanimously approved an agreement with Benton County to allow Franklin County to borrow Benton County's engineer while Fife is on leave.

The county is legally required to have a licensed engineer for its Public Works department, Peck said.

Under the agreement, Franklin County will reimburse Benton County for engineer Malcolm Bowie's normal rate and the state standard for any mileage he may drive to perform the duties, Peck said.

Bowie's hourly rate is $47.78, which does not include overhead, said Aileen Coverdell, Benton County Public Works administrative financial accountant.

The agreement is effective through April 30, but could be extended if needed, said Steve Becken, Benton County Public Works director.

Franklin County officials are unsure how long the paid administrative leave will last.

Peck said they hope to have the employees on paid leave back to work as soon as possible. But county officials are still in the process of determining what criteria will be needed to be met before the employees are brought back.

Benton County commissioners are expected to vote on the agreement today.

-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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