PASCO — A social worker pleaded innocent Tuesday to allegations she posed as an employee of the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office in order to get a paternity test for a client's case.
Rhonda Lee Peterson Johnson faces a Sept. 15 trial in Franklin County Superior Court for first-degree criminal impersonation.
Court documents allege the 56-year-old West Richland woman called a Tri-Cities laboratory and, after answering a series of security questions, asked that the genetic testing for a particular case be changed to a "motherless draw" instead of one involving both parents and the child.
She misrepresented herself by implying that she worked for the prosecutor's office when she gave its account number in ordering the change, documents said.
Johnson's job reportedly was to represent children in foster care as a social worker for the state Department of Social and Health Services. She worked for the Richland office of the Division of Children and Family Services.
In this dependency case, she was trying to help a couple get custody of their grandchild, documents said.
It is not known if Johnson still is employed as a social worker.
The allegations that first surfaced a year ago led to a 2 1/2-month-long investigation by Detective Vik Mauro in the Washington State Patrol's DSHSSpecial Investigations Unit in Olympia.
The charges were filed in mid-June by Columbia County Prosecutor Rea Culwell, who is acting as a special prosecutor because of the conflict with the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office.
According to a seven-page investigative report written by Mauro, the potential father of the child in Johnson's case was known but the mother was missing after failing to show up for testing.
The Child Support Division of the prosecutor's office had sent mouth swabs of the father and the child to LabCorp of Tri-Cities, but still needed a swab from the mother to complete the request for all-party genetic testing. The lab waits to do the testing until all samples are submitted.
In order to move the case through the system, Johnson allegedly wanted the tests done "the sooner the better" and asked for a motherless draw.
A motherless draw involves only genetically testing the father and the child, and not the mother to the child. The process is more expensive and the prosecutor's office has a policy not to do a motherless draw, except in cases where the mother cannot be located, lives in a distant state or is dead, the report said.
Deputy Prosecutor Erica Davis was handling the paternal dependency case and reportedly knew that the mother was around, so on June 1, 2009, she asked for a bench warrant on the mother. Within days of the warrant being issued, a relative of the mother called Davis and agreed to bring her in for testing at a scheduled time.
In the meantime, Johnson called the prosecutor's office, requesting a motherless draw. She was told by legal secretaries during two separate phone calls that it would not be authorized and that a warrant had been issued for the child's mother.
A week later, Johnson called LabCorp to have the order changed so the mother didn't need to be tested, the investigative report said.
The lab's receptionist asked Johnson on June 16, 2009, several random questions to identify the case, including the account number which is needed to proceed, the report said. It is believed Johnson knew the prosecutor's account number for the lab from previous cases.
The lab later received the samples to test all parties.
The prosecutor's office learned that the motherless draw had been done when it received the genetic test results, the report said. The results for testing all parties came in days later.
That is when employees with the prosecutor's office called LabCorp and discovered Johnson allegedly made the change without an attorney's authorization.
Mauro contacted Johnson on Oct. 7 during his investigation but she wouldn't talk to him. "Johnson made an utterance that she had a court order to obtain paternity," Mauro wrote in his report.
Janelle Carman of Walla Walla, Johnson's attorney, called Mauro the following day and said she had advised her client not to meet with him "until they have a better idea of what the allegations are."
Mauro said he looked through the DSHS case file and didn't find a court order directing Johnson to obtain paternity directly from LabCorp.
Johnson is out on her personal recognizance.
* Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531; email@example.com