Whistleblower or cyberthreats? An investigation has begun in Franklin County

The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a series of anonymous letters accusing a county employee of time card fraud. Officials claim there’s no fraud and the letters are cyber threats.
The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a series of anonymous letters accusing a county employee of time card fraud. Officials claim there’s no fraud and the letters are cyber threats. Tri-City Herald

The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a series of anonymous letters accusing a county employee of time card fraud.

But the sheriff says it’s not a whistleblower complaint. It’s now a case of cyberthreats, he said.

In addition to the criminal investigation, the county already has paid $17,000 to a private investigator and now state auditors are looking into the issue.

For two years, someone has been sending Franklin County officials letters and emails accusing an employee of time card fraud.

The county received the first of several dozen letters and emails in early 2016 complaining that one of seven employees in the commissioners’ office has misrepresented hours on a time card.

The county’s Human Resource officials previously decided the allegations were groundless because the employee is exempt under federal employment law and isn’t required to keep an hourly a time card.

Still, the letters kept coming, first to some commissioners and elected department heads, and then to broader circle of employees, including the county administrator and human resources manager.

The case flared into public view recently as candidates for elected office began offering the “whistleblower” case as evidence of Franklin County’s government turmoil.

matt beaton
Matt Beaton

Franklin County Auditor Matt Beaton, a Republican running for re-election against Democrat Diana Izaguirre, said the allegations continue to disrupt day-to-day operations.

“There’s a witch hunt going on,” Beaton said.

Izaguirre told the Herald she thought Beaton should have asked commissioners for more information about why a sheriff’s investigation wasn’t asked for sooner.

County Administrator Keith Johnson said, “It has been a very unnecessary distraction.”

He said the letters crossed the line from whistleblower complaints to harassment when the sender increased the distribution list and added new complaints, such as asking why the employee had not been terminated.

Brad Peck, chairman of the Franklin County Commission, called the time card charges “absurd.”

mug Brad Peck
Brad Peck

Nevertheless, he said the county initially took the complaints seriously enough to review the allegations.

The county also sent an all-staff email to remind workers they’re protected from retaliation under federal and state whistleblower protection laws. If someone had a concern, they could step forward without fear.

No one did.

“I’m not aware of anyone claiming whistleblower status,” he told the Herald.

And he said the commissioners are not aware of any evidence of time card-related misbehavior or fraud.

“If we saw any evidence of that, we would go after it directly,” Peck said.

Last spring, county Prosecutor Shawn Sant quietly hired a private investigator to suss out the letter writer’s identity, treating the case as one of harassment.

The investigator interviewed county employees in the courthouse, bluntly asking them to speculate about the writer’s identity.

That investigation was sidelined when Franklin County Sheriff Jim Raymond independently decided there were grounds to investigate the letters as cyberthreats, a possible misdemeanor crime.

The letters arrived by U.S. mail and email and contained veiled threats, Raymond said.

The sheriff’s office is concerned solely with the apparent cyberthreats, he said.

Raymond said he has sought search warrants to ferret out metadata and IP addresses. If warranted, the case will be forwarded to the prosecutor for possible charges.

“It will be a while,” he said.

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Franklin County Courthouse in Pasco

Beaton said the courthouse became a hotbed of gossip as workers openly speculated about the writer’s identity. He said visitors regularly stop by his office solely to discuss potential “suspects.”

“They were pulling staff out of people’s offices. This was literally a witch hunt,” said Beaton, who confirmed he was interviewed by the private investigator.

Where Peck, Raymond and Johnson see harassment, Beaton and other candidates fear the county is mishandling a possible whistleblower case.

Diana Izaguirre

Beaton, who unsuccessfully challenged Peck for a seat on the commission in 2016, said he did not learn of the allegations until he received a copy of a letter in February 2018.

At the time, he believed it was a fresh allegation and handled it as if it were new information.

He and his audit team reviewed the claims, which contained no specific evidence, and filed it away.

When a second letter arrived with a copy of an allegedly fraudulent time card, he contacted the state auditor’s office.

Beaton said he should have been included from the start.

He claims Franklin County could have avoided the escalating tension by bringing in an outside investigator sooner. Then when the letters continued, they could have been treated as harassment, he said.

“When you get a whisteblower complaint and you don’t respond to it, who is responsible for it escalating to harassment?” he asked. “I would submit that we brought this on ourselves.”

Johnson too has discussed the allegations with state auditors. No state findings on the issue have been released.

The letters and emails have not been made public because of the criminal investigation.

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Clint Didier

Clint Didier, a Republican candidate for the Franklin County Commission seat currently held by Rick Miller, told the Herald this week the fearful atmosphere in the courthouse is one of several reasons he is running for office.

Zahra Roach

He said he worries the commission’s handling of the time card allegation could be inviting a whistleblower retaliation lawsuit.

His challenger Democrat Zahra Roach said she sees the controversy as a continuing problem with the lack of communication and transparency in the county.

“I see chaos in the courthouse, as well,” she said.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514