Franklin County commissioner wants embezzlement report released

Tri-City HeraldSeptember 8, 2012 

— Franklin County Commissioner Rick Miller wants an independent investigator's report about a multimillion-dollar embezzlement of public works money released to the public.

"That report should be produced," Miller told fellow commissioners Bob Koch and Brad Peck at a commission meeting this week.

Miller said he sees no reason why it can't be released as a public document.

Miller tagged his request on the end of the commission meeting Wednesday, but the motion died when neither of the other two commissioners agreed to vote on it.

Miller's request to reveal the report that was first shared with commissioners in April comes just as the State Auditor's Office is about to release its own investigative report on the embezzlement.

The $13,467 independent investigator's report also is being sought as potential evidence in the Franklin County Superior Court trial of Dennis Huston, the former county public works official accused of stealing money from the county for 20 years.

Huston, 65, allegedly stole more than $2.8 million to support his cocaine and gambling habits. His trial was scheduled for January.

Franklin County requested an independent investigation through its insurer, the Washington Counties Risk Pool, in February, shortly after information about the embezzlement was made public.

The risk pool agreed to pay $5,000 toward a review of their potential liability.

The investigator, Jim Webber of Kirkland, began working on the case in mid-February, reporting to risk pool attorney Suzanne Michael of Seattle.

Documents obtained by the Herald through public records requests confirm Franklin County paid $8,467 to reimburse the risk pool for work by Webber and Michael on the report.

The records also show he interviewed numerous county employees and completed a draft by March 21.

Webber did follow-up interviews with the county commissioners in April, finishing his report by April 16. At that time, Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant said the report should remain confidential. And Peck told Miller on Wednesday that he won't go against legal advice.

"But it's our decision," Miller countered.

"You can take it up with (the prosecutor). I'm not inclined to give the (prosecuting attorney) advice. Whatever he recommends I'll go with," Peck said, arguing that there was legal precedent and an attorney-client privilege. Sant was not at the meeting.

Miller told the Herald he argued in a closed-door executive session in April to make the report public, but couldn't get Koch and Peck to agree.

He decided to try again this week, just to make it clear he favors disclosing the report.

"I don't want the public to think I also was against releasing it, so I wanted to try again during a public meeting," he told the Herald.

On Wednesday, Peck said Sant opposes releasing the investigator's report because the county has a civil lawsuit and a criminal case pending against Huston.

"Since it has not gone to court yet and this is part of the litigation review, I cannot second the motion," said Commissioner Bob Koch.

Miller told the Herald he believes the public has a right to know what is in the report.

Tim Ford, open government ombudsman for the Washington Attorney General's Office, said his personal opinion is that it would take a majority of the commission to agree before Webber's report could be released.

"One commissioner cannot disclose separately from the others. They could as a collective body vote to release it," Ford said, adding that the state law is open to interpretation and his view is not shared by all attorneys.

Sant could not be reached Friday, but Miller shared an Aug. 17 email from Sant explaining why the report should not be made public.

"My legal advice to the board was to consider the report privileged as we continue to face potential litigation over the termination of (former Public Works Director Tim Fife) and potentially related matters," Sant wrote.

Fife was fired for lack of oversight of Huston and the department.

"This also sets bad precedent for the board to pick and choose which attorney-client privileged documents it chooses to release," Sant wrote.

Miller told the Herald that Sant's answer changed from what he said in April when Webber's final report was delivered to the county.

Sant's Aug. 17 email to Miller said: "At one time I believe you and I had a discussion about releasing the report from a public relations standpoint as you indicated several people inquired about getting a copy, but as further litigation concerns arose, so did the level of legal concern."

Mindy Chambers, representative of the state auditor's office, said their report will be in draft form and should be available for commissioners to review within a week.

Chambers said the commission has the choice to review that draft report in a public or executive session, after which the county's reply will be added to the report before it is final and released to the public by the state.

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