Franklin County seeks $2.8 million it claims manager embezzled

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldMarch 22, 2012 

PASCO -- Franklin County is asking a judge to award more than $2.8 million it claims a former county manager embezzled using false invoices.

The county filed a lawsuit Wednesday for damages in Franklin County Superior Court against Dennis M. Huston and his wife.

The county accuses Huston, the county's fired Public Works accounting and administrative director, of stealing more than $2.8 million through false invoices us-ing the name of Spokane company Critzer Equipment, according to court documents.

County Prosecutor Shawn Sant said the amount was compiled from invoices the county auditor's office has identified going back to 1996. Huston apparently was using the company's name to allegedly steal from the county even before Critzer Equipment closed in 2001.

Documents show that the invoices claimed payments for vehicle parts that the county says it never received.

Huston, 65, is not charged with a crime. He initially was arrested but then released while county and state officials investigate the theft allegations. The state Attorney General's Office still is investigating.

In the meantime, the amount that is suspected of being taken nearly has tripled from initial estimates of about $1 million.

County Commission Chairman Brad Peck told the Herald the county will ask a Superior Court judge to put holds on Huston's assets to preserve the county's opportunity to recover some of what they believe he has converted from county ownership to his personal use.

"We want back what we believe Mr. Huston took from the citizens of Franklin County," he said.

On Wednesday, county commissioners unanimously approved filing a civil lawsuit against Huston and his wife, Noel. County Commissioner Rick Miller was absent from the meeting.

The county can file the lawsuit now without waiting until the AG's office decides to file criminal charges, Sant said.

In counties where similar cases have occurred, the county has handled a civil lawsuit while the state AG's office pursues criminal charges, he said.

Sant said the county wants to preserve any claim it may have on Huston's assets. The judge will decide whether the county can identify the assets belonging to the Hustons and then could order those assets to be frozen so that they can't be sold or transferred, Sant said.

"If we win the case, we want to make sure the county can collect on the judgment," he said.

The county also is asking to be allowed to withhold paying Huston $11,521 in wages and benefits he earned before he was fired and deducting that from what he allegedly owes the county, Sant said.

"It really doesn't make sense to pay that amount of money because he owes us over $2.8 million," Sant said.

Court documents show the county owes Huston $1,281 in unpaid wages, $1,313 in his medical savings account, $137 in sick leave and $8,788 in unused vacation time.

Huston could not be reached at his home Wednesday about the pending lawsuit.

His Pasco home is listed under his wife's name and is valued at $127,400, according to county records. Property records in Benton and Franklin counties do not show the couple owning any other property.

When Huston was arrested last month, he allegedly told investigators he used some of the missing money to buy drugs, according to court documents.

Peck said the county anticipates receiving the results of a third-party internal investigation soon. Once officials have received the information, they will be making some decisions about two employees who remain on unpaid leave.

Tim Fife, the county's Public Works director and engineer, and Guy Walters, assistant Public Works director, have been on paid leave since Huston was arrested Feb. 2. Officials have said the employees on leave are not accused of any wrongdoing.

Six other county employees who were on paid leave have since returned to work.

The alleged embezzlement was discovered this year when county auditors were verifying the legitimacy of the county's 2,000 vendors.

Huston was hired as a Public Works accountant by Franklin County in May 1989, less than eight months after he finished serving 21 months in federal custody for embezzlement.

He was convicted in 1986 of stealing $142,000 in taxpayer money by using a fake company while he was a finance officer with a federal agency in Montana. At that time, he said he had a drug problem.

Huston became Franklin County's Public Works director of accounting and administration in January 2001, according to court documents.

In 2009, the FBI investigated Huston because of an anonymous complaint that accused him of stealing county money, according to documents obtained by the Herald. The FBI told county officials that they found nothing.

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

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