Dennis Huston criminal case briefly wiped from public view

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 21, 2013 

The criminal file for Dennis M. Huston's embezzlement and cocaine case was sealed from view and wiped from the public record for more than a week because of wrong language in a court order.

Huston pleaded guilty Jan. 31 to pocketing more than $2.8 million of Franklin County's money to support his cocaine and gambling habits. It's been called the largest public embezzlement case in state history.

Almost two weeks after the hearing, Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant drafted a motion to seal a confidential report and two edited versions of it because he believes the results of an internal investigation are protected by attorney-client privilege.

However, Sant's motion said the electronic system and all scanned documents for Huston's file also should be sealed.

The order was signed off by defense attorney John Jensen and Assistant Attorney General Scott Marlow, and ordered by Superior Court Judge Craig Matheson.

As a result, Huston's criminal case disappeared from the state's electronic court system as if it never existed.

The Herald discovered the missing case this week when searching the Washington Courts database, and asked why the high-profile case no longer was accessible.

Franklin County Clerk Mike Killian said his office followed the judge's order Feb. 12 and didn't question it because, although not common, whole files have been sealed before.

If someone from the public asked the clerk's office about the case, an employee could acknowledge a Huston file existed, but that it was sealed.

After the Herald raised concerns about the closure of the file, Sant took action Wednesday afternoon to correct his motion, saying it was interpreted differently from what he intended.

"The intent of this order was solely to maintain the confidentiality of the three documents that were provided to the judge (for private review), and nothing else," Sant told the Herald.

Deputy Prosecutor Janet Taylor met with Killian on Wednesday to understand what happened and see how they could fix it.

Sant said they were checking with all the parties, including the judge who is away on business, to see if it could be cleared up by eliminating certain language in the order.

The case was back online shortly before 7 p.m.

Earlier in the day, searches for the case number -- assigned to Huston's file when he was charged May 25 -- showed: "No records found. Try searching again."

The online page typically shows a timeline of events in a case, including hearing dates and document filings.

Huston, 66, is to be sentenced March 27 after his guilty pleas to first-degree theft, money laundering and cocaine possession.

The nondrug charges each include three aggravating factors that the crime was a major economic offense.

The maximum sentence possible is 25 years in prison, with prosecutors planning to recommend 15 years.

Huston started the theft scheme less than a month after being hired as an accountant in May 1989. He was the Franklin County Public Works accounting and administrative director when he was fired in February 2012.

The same day Huston was jailed on the embezzlement allegations, the county hired a Seattle attorney for legal advice on issues not connected to the criminal investigation. That resulted in a nine-page internal report that county officials said they never intended to make public.

Huston's defense attorney repeatedly asked for a copy of the report. The lawyer said he had a right to see all documents related to his client.

Two of the three Franklin County commissioners have refused to make the report public since April.

The report was leaked to the Herald last September. It says county officials didn't do enough to protect the county after Huston admitted to having a criminal past soon after he was hired.

The report concludes that Huston's superiors were "remiss in not taking any action in response to Mr. Huston's revelation, especially since Mr. Huston worked in a financial capacity."

In November, Judge Matheson agreed that Huston was entitled to the information compiled from interviews with county employees, but not the author's opinions on disciplinary actions.

Matheson reviewed the report privately and allowed the defense to have an edited version as part of the criminal case.

The state Attorney General's Office handled the criminal case because the Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant is handling the county's civil lawsuit against Huston.

Sant told the Herald that he wanted to get the original report and the two edited copies sealed in the criminal case because they're related to the civil case, which has not yet been resolved.

Under the corrected order, the three copies of the report were removed from the scanned system. Sant said he expects the electronic summary now will include a notation that there is a confidential or redacted report.

And in the actual case file, the documents will be placed in a sealed envelope but everything else once again will be available for public inspection.

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

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