A Benton County Superior Court judge has ordered the Kennewick Irrigation District to pay more than $483,000 in attorney fees to its former engineering manager who was wrongly fired in 2008.
Superior Court Judge Carrie Runge also ordered the district to pay more than $9,700 in interest to Brad Wellenbrock. A Benton County Superior Court jury awarded him $750,000 in late July after a two-week trial.
Wellenbrock's attorney, Jack Sheridan of Seattle, said the judgment assures that wrongdoers are held accountable, but at great cost to the public. "Maybe the thing we learn from this is we really need to watch our public officials," he said.
KID Board Member Patrick McGuire declined to discuss the more than $1.24 million judgment when contacted Monday evening.
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Wellenbrock argued that Loren Watts, then-president of the KID board, sought to get rid of him after he complained to his boss that Watt's company, Watts Construction, took excessive water from a system serving Hansen Park for construction purposes, broke into an irrigation pond to fill his company's water trucks and ripped out a weirbox to build a private irrigation system for a property owner who did not have KID water rights.
The board hired Doug Grover as secretary-manager in late 2007 and one of Grover's first acts was to put Wellenbrock on leave before firing him in February 2008. Wellenbrock claimed Grover was hired on condition he eliminate Wellenbrock's position.
The jury eventually awarded Wellenbrock damages for back and future pay, as well as for emotional distress, anxiety and humiliation.
The district, which serves about 21,000 residential and agricultural customers in the Tri-City region, has not said how it will pay the judgment.
None of the board members from 2007 remains on the board today.
KID's attorney, George Fearing of Kennewick, argued that Sheridan's claimed hours were excessive and he should not include any travel time or time spent working on an earlier trial in the case that resulted in a mistrial.
In her ruling, Runge said she excluded some of the costs that Wellenbrock's legal team accrued, specifically time spent working on an administrative claim that never progressed, but that only amounted to a fraction of the hours Sheridan and his team spent on the case.
"If attorneys couldn't get paid for representing victims of whistleblower retaliation, the wrongdoers would never be held accountable, because they freely spend public money to defend their wrongful actions," Sheridan said in a statement.
-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org