PASCO — A Franklin County employee is accused of dipping into the county's coffers, and now he is being held in jail without bail.
Dennis M. Huston, 64, is one of nine county employees put on administrative leave Thursday as part of an investigation into the theft of public funds, said Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck.
Huston, the county's director of accounting and administration for the Public Works Department, is on unpaid leave, Peck told the Herald.
The other eight employees -- including Public Works Director Tim Fife and Deputy Public Works Director Guy Walters -- are on paid administrative leave.
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"For the people who are on paid leave, there's no indication of wrongdoing," Peck said. "It's just about removing them from the office so an investigation can be done."
Officials declined to release the names of the employees on paid leave because of the ongoing investigation. The Herald, however, learned that Fife and Walters were on that list when Peck explained that the Public Works director and deputy Public Works director had been removed from the department's chain of command.
Also, because Fife reports to the county administrator, Fred Bowen will not handle any Public Works-related business until the investigation is completed, Peck said. Bowen, however, has a pivotal role in running the county, Peck noted, and will continue to perform his other duties.
"The county administrator is far enough removed; we just don't want him to have any involvement with Public Works while we continue to sort this out," Peck said, adding that the other employees can "afford to be out of the office for a short period of time."
The investigation into the misappropriation of funds began about two weeks ago after it was discovered during an internal audit by the county Auditor's Office, said Auditor Matt Beaton.
It was immediately reported to the state Auditor's Office and the state Attorney General's Office, he said.
The state agencies are investigating the allegations. A separate internal county investigation also is being conducted. Pasco police are handling the criminal investigation at the request of the Attorney General's Office, said Pasco police Capt. Jim Raymond.
No details were released about the amount of money that allegedly was stolen from the county or how long the alleged thefts have been going on.
"This may have very well been an ongoing activity for a long period of time," Peck said.
Information about the possible theft of public funds was announced during a news conference Thursday afternoon by Peck, Beaton and Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant. An email also was sent to county employees at 11:25 a.m., about 90 minutes before the news conference.
"We are personally saddened by this," Peck said.
Huston was booked into the Franklin County jail at 12:30 p.m., said jail Capt. Rick Long. He was arrested by Pasco police on suspicion of first-degree theft, money laundering and possession of a controlled substance.
Detectives also served search warrants at the county's Public Works building, removing computers and several file boxes. They also searched Huston's home on West Pearl Street in Pasco.
"The investigation is extensive in nature and continues at the direction" of Attorney General Rob McKenna, Raymond said.
Sant noted that any prosecution in the case will be done by the Attorney General's Office.
Huston, who has worked for the county since May 8, 1989, repeatedly has been recognized by the Washington Finance Officers Association.
Last year, he was one of five public employees in the Tri-Cities to receive the Professional Finance Officer award, which recognizes achievements of professional service and ongoing education and training by financial officers. Huston also received the award from 2006-09.
Huston's annual salary is $76,164.
Peck, chairman of the Franklin County Commission, said he has contacted Benton County commissioners to see if an agreement can be worked out to have Benton County's deputy Public Works director work in Franklin County on an interim basis to oversee the day-to-day activities of the 41-employee department.
The Franklin County commissioners also will work on developing a set of criteria for how and when employees on paid administrative leave can return to their jobs.
"Our objective is to get people back to work as quickly as possible," he said. "One of the primary objectives is to minimize the pain and inconvenience for people who may be ultimately cleared of wrongdoing."
But, if there is any culpability found by any county employee, Peck said officials "will take it as serious as we can and take proper action."
The Public Works Department budget this year is about $2.47 million, a $130,000 increase over 2011.
There are three main construction projects in progress in the county -- East Foster Wells Road, the Road 100/Dent Road extension and Peterson Road -- but the work is being completed by contractors, Peck said.
Public works employees also are responsible for routine road maintenance and grading, and have numerous other small projects and programs being planned and reviewed, he said.
It is too soon to know if the investigation will affect any projects. Peck said it depends on the length of the investigation, which could "likely stretch into months." But, he said he would provide as much information as he can, when he can, without impeding the process.
"I came here 36 months ago and I have pushed for increased accountability and transparency in the county," he said. "This is the people's county."