A former Franklin County manager was investigated by the FBI for alleged fraud about three years before he came under suspicion for embezzling more than $1 million from the county.
The FBI did not find evidence to support an anonymous complaint that Dennis Huston, the county's former Public Works accounting and administrative director, allegedly was committing fraud, according documents obtained by the Herald.
Franklin County Commissioner Rick Miller found the anonymous letter on the doorstep of his home three years ago. Miller said he wasn't sure of the validity of the accusations, but he took the letter to the county prosecutor.
"I was concerned, of course," Miller said.
Then-Prosecutor Steve Lowe asked Special Agent John Ryther of the FBI's Richland office to investigate the claims in a letter dated May 13, 2009.
Lowe told the Herald on Tuesday that he asked for the FBI's help because the complaint was made against a county employee. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Yakima assisted with the investigation.
The anonymous complaint was dated April 11, 2009, but is not among the documents the Herald received under the state's Public Records Act.
It contains unsubstantiated allegations of employee misconduct that can be withheld based on state case law, according to an exemption log from the county.
The anonymous allegation was specific and proved to be unfounded, said county Prosecutor Shawn Sant. It involved a different business than the one that Huston currently is suspected of using to allegedly embezzle money from the county.
The FBI's investigation found nothing, according to a Feb. 25, 2010, email from Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Ellis to Lowe and Ryan Verhulp, the county's chief civil deputy prosecutor.
FBI officials said they couldn't comment on the case, and the Herald was unable to reach Huston by phone at his home on Tuesday.
Sant, who was not in office at the time, said it's possible that because the allegation was specific, the FBI wouldn't have found anything. The allegations were unrelated to the current case, he said.
Miller said that because of the anonymous letter, he wasn't surprised when Huston was accused of stealing money from the county.
Miller said he remembers the letter questioned how Huston got hired when he had charges filed against him.
Lowe said he doesn't recall if that was in the letter, but if it was, it wouldn't be something the FBI likely would investigate. The FBI would be looking for criminal activity, not how someone was hired.
Officials still have not said if Huston's criminal history was known by Franklin County officials who hired him. His personnel files are among those taken by investigators.
Huston was hired in May 1989, less than eight months after he finished serving 21 months in federal custody.
He pleaded guilty to stealing $142,000 in taxpayer money by using a fake company while he was a finance officer with the federal Bureau of Reclamation in Billings, Mont.
He admitted at the time to having a drug problem and entered a drug treatment program.
Huston, who was fired in Franklin County on Feb. 8, is under investigation for creating a bank account for Critzer Equipment, a company that went out of business in 2001. He had no association with the original company.
The investigations by the county, the state Auditor's Office and the state Attorney General's Office are continuing.
Huston was released from jail earlier this month after the state Attorney General's Office said it needed more time to investigate before filing charges.
Sant said the county is waiting for the state to make a decision on filing charges. The AG's office is working closely with the state Auditor's Office, he said.
Hopefully a charging decision will be made soon, Sant said.
County Commission Chairman Brad Peck said some progress has been made on the internal county investigation, which includes trying to get a better idea of how the alleged theft happened. The county is working on understanding the problem and deciding what changes make the most sense, he said.
"We want to understand it thoroughly and make sure the fixes that we put in place are effective and efficient," he said.
County Administrator Fred Bowen and Malcolm Bowie, Benton County's engineer, are leading the Franklin County Public Works department.
Benton County is lending Bowie to Franklin County while Tim Fife, Franklin County Public Works director and engineer, and Guy Walters, the department's assistant director, remain on paid administrative leave.
Peck said reimbursing Benton County for Bowie's time will come out of the department's budget at this point. Bowie's hourly rate is $47.78, which does not include overhead or mileage.
But Tuesday, Benton County commissioners decided to give Bowie a 5 percent pay raise because of the extra work.
Fife and Walters are the only two county employees still on paid leave. Six county employees returned to work about two weeks ago. Employees on leave have not been accused of any wrongdoing.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org