Controversial former Port of Kennewick director seeks commissioner position

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldJuly 7, 2013 

When John Givens resigned 10 years ago as executive director of the Port of Kennewick, he left hastily in a cloud of controversy.

Now he's back, hoping to be elected to the port's board this fall as District 1 commissioner.

Givens was accused of having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a female employee at port offices about two months before he resigned in 2003, according to documents obtained by the Herald.

That was shortly after he was the subject of several complaints about his behavior toward employees.

Port commissioners told Givens in an August 2003 letter that he would need to undergo training based on the behavior, which they said created a potential liability.

Givens, in an attempt to keep the circumstances of his departure a thing of the past, threatened through his attorney to sue the port for releasing the documents to the Herald.

Among the employee complaints detailed in those documents were that Givens made inappropriate and derogatory comments, called employees offensive names, discouraged sick leave and revealed employee personal issues that were supposed to be confidential.

Commissioners Gene Wagner and John Olson wrote at the time that they found the complaints credible.

Two months later, Olson asked Givens to explain why he was in the same office at the port with a female employee with the front door locked from the inside during the lunch hour. Neither Givens nor the female employee answered when someone knocked on the door and then rattled it.

Olson told Givens a port employee who unlocked the door reported that Givens and the female employee were in the same office and came out "disheveled, red-faced and the employee ran directly to the restroom."

Commissioners announced in November 2003 that Givens would resign. He was given a $51,000 settlement as part of a separation agreement, which stated his resignation was not from a past or present disciplinary action.

'It was turbulent'

Givens denies the alleged sexual relationship and said his seven-year record with the port was exemplary.

He described the timing of his separation as suspicious. He would not say whether he thought the allegations were why he was asked to resign, but did tell the Herald he isn't "naive."

"When I left the port, it was turbulent," Givens said. "It was not the way I wanted to leave the port."

The employee complaints included an instance when he referred to a female employee as a "blue ribbon heifer" -- which, as a livestock judge, he meant to be complimentary, he said.

Givens also told a commissioner about an employee's medical condition, and had an issue come up when one employee reported a colleague going to a social event on a sick day, he said.

Givens told Olson in October 2003 that he was hurt by the false conclusions about the locked-door incident with the female employee, the documents said. He didn't know how the door had gotten locked, and if his hair was "mussed" it must have been because he had previously been at Vista Field Airport.

Releasing the records

The Herald filed a state public records request to see the complaints raised in 2003. Givens threatened to sue the port to block their release -- even though some of them had been made public before.

Port officials released the records anyway, disagreeing with Givens' claims that the records aren't public documents. Tim Ford, the open government ombudsman for the state Attorney General's Office, also supported the Herald's request.

Givens' attorney, Brian Iller, told the port that releasing the documents would violate the separation agreement.

When Givens ran for county commissioner in 2004, a private citizen asked for -- and received -- records pertaining to complaints against Givens.

The Herald had asked for the records in 2003 after Givens' resignation, but that request was denied by former port attorney Ray Whitlow.

Iller told the port it should not release the documents now, based on the 2003 denial. Port attorney Lucinda Luke responded that the records "relate to allegations of misconduct that were sustained and led to the separation agreement between Mr. Givens and the port," and so were public documents.

Iller disputed that Givens' departure was based on the allegations. He wrote that if the records were released, that Givens would feel free to reveal allegedly illegal actions taken by two port commissioners based on meetings not held in accordance to the state Open Public Meetings Act.

"Your threats against the port will not cause the port to wrongfully withhold records," Luke wrote. "The allegations of Open Public Meetings Act, raised only when Mr. Givens is trying to force the port to withhold records, are hardly credible. It does show, however, that Givens is willing to keep illegal secrets if it benefits him."

Givens told the Herald that he asked for the records not to be released because the separation agreement stipulates neither the port or Givens would make disparaging remarks about each other. He said he also wanted to protect other people who might be mentioned.

Givens would not say whether he has ruled out suing the port over the records release.

Looking to the election

Givens said he is looking forward to the August primary, and plans to be the next Port of Kennewick commissioner for District 1.

"My plan is to win the primary election," he said.

Givens knew the employee complaints might come up in the election, just as they did when he ran for county commissioner in 2004, he said.

But he didn't expect to see Olson's allegations about the alleged sexual relationship become public, he said.

Givens decided to run for port commission because he is looking at cutting back on banking work, and anticipates having some time open where he could give back to the community.

He already serves on the boards of the Kennewick Public Facilities District and Tri-Cities Regional Public Facilities District.

He hasn't lost his love of the port industry, he said. He was a commissioner for the Port of Clarkston for 13 years before moving to the Tri-Cities.

Givens would be able to work with the current staff and the other two commissioners, he said.

"Eventually I would like to leave the port industry the way I want to leave the port industry," he said.

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