Accusations fly in race for Franklin County clerk

Challenger Jackie Lopez Giddens and incumbent Michael Killian are running for Franklin County clerk.
Challenger Jackie Lopez Giddens and incumbent Michael Killian are running for Franklin County clerk.

The race for Franklin County clerk is bitter battle, marked by mutual accusations of misconduct.

Michael Killian, the 18-year incumbent, is seeking re-election against challenger Jackie Giddens Lopez, a flight attendant trainer and former Benton County chief deputy clerk.

Both are Republicans and both are accusing each other of mismanagement and dishonesty as the clock ticks down to the Nov. 6 general election.

Killian serves in various clerk-related organizations, including the Washington State Association of County Clerks and the National Association for Court Management. He serves in the U.S. Navy reserve.

Lopez Giddens worked for Benton County District Court for 10 years and served as Benton County chief deputy clerk for six years. She currently trains flight attendants and owns Mail ‘n’ Stuff in Kennewick. She belongs to the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Tri-Cities Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Both candidates are endorsed by the Franklin County Republican Party.

In a meeting with the Tri-City Herald editorial board, the candidates clashed on issues large and small — County hiring practices, a lawsuit pending against Killian, theft in the clerk’s office and Lopez Giddens’ sudden departure from her Benton County clerk job six years ago.

The county clerk is the administrative and financial officer of the Superior Court responsible for managing records and exhibits, collecting fines, overseeing the jury reporting system and managing a staff of 14.

The lawsuit

Killian was sued in March by the seven judges of the Benton-Franklin Superior Court, who want to force him to comply with their order to maintain paper court records. The dispute arose after he finished converting the office to the state’s electronic court records system, called Odyssey.

The case is set for a hearing Dec. 7 in Kittitas County Superior Court. The dispute spawned a separate conflict between the judges and the county prosecutor in the state Supreme Court concerning the prosecutor’s discretion to hire his own deputies.

Killian said the judges had two years of notice and readily adapted to Odyssey, which offers them around-the-clock court document access. The paper documents still exist and are kept on file with the clerk’s office but the paper records are not pulled out unless requested.

He said his office is seldom asked to pull paper records so he was surprised by the suit but maintains it is the clerk’s role to manage his own office in the most efficient and cost-effective way.

The Franklin County Courthouse in Pasco. File Tri-City Herald

Lopez Giddens said she would have better relationships with the judges and notes Killian is the only clerk in Washington being sued over the migration to Odyssey.

“The lawsuit would have been avoided,” she said.

Killian said he’s attempted to resolve the issue but that the judge’s Olympia attorney is unresponsive to calls from his attorney.

“It’s personal,” he said. “I didn’t go and say, ‘Judge (Bruce) Spanner, can I do this?’”

Departure from Benton County

Lopez Giddens — then Jackie Lopez Hill — worked in the Benton County Clerk’s office until 2012.

The elected county clerk, Josie Delvin, removed Lopez Giddens as her chief deputy after an investigation found that Lopez Giddens improperly asked a court facilitator to explain some technical terms on paperwork related to her own divorce.

Delvin called it an improper use of public resources.

Lopez Giddens apologized, volunteered for demotion, paid the $25 facilitator fee and called the misstep an honest mistake colored by the stress of a divorce.

Franklin County Courthouse.JPG
The Franklin County Courthouse on North Fourth Avenue in Pasco. File Tri-City Herald

She was demoted but resigned a short time later, saying she needed a different job because of the cut in wages.

Killian has repeatedly accused his opponent of lying about the incident. Lopez Giddens told the Herald in an April interview she thought she was under a non-disclosure agreement.

Lopez Giddens said she was told by Benton County’s human resources department not to discuss the case when she left.

She requested her personnel file after the Herald interview and posted a letter of explanation in the news section of her campaign website and has talked openly about it.

Theft in clerk’s office

A financial manager in Killian’s office was fired earlier this year after investigators discovered more than $11,000 was missing.

The theft came to light when the employee, Yesenia Torres, was out of the office and another worker picked up a message inquiring about an uncashed check. The resulting investigation by the sheriff’s office and state auditors found that two deposits, including cash and checks, had not been delivered to the bank.

A prosecutor from another county who reviewed the case decided not to file criminal charges.

Killian said he alerted the auditor to the situation as soon as it came to light. Torres had worked in other county departments before joining the clerk’s office and there was no indication she should not be hired.

Lopez Giddens called it evidence the clerk’s office lacks controls.

“Let’s figure out what is going on. Why are there issues with money?” she asked.

Campaign complaints

Killian has lodged three complaints against Lopez Giddens with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, the state’s election watchdog. One is attached to a similar complaint by Benton County Clerk Josie Delvin.

Killian’s more serious charge was lodged in June, when he told the PDC that he was told Judge Spanner paid Lopez Giddens’ filing fee and that she did not properly report it.

Lopez Giddens adamantly disputes that, saying she has documentation that she and her husband paid the fee from their checking account. She reported the fee on the wrong form in May. She amended a June report to correctly account for the payment.

The PDC concluded it did not amount to a material violation warranting further investigation and the case was closed.

Lopez Giddens said no one asked her to challenge Killian. “God as my witness, no,” she told the Herald.

In August, both Killian and Josie Delvin, who is running unopposed for re-election in Benton County, complained that Lopez Giddens did not properly disclose expenditures associated with radio ads and rent for a booth at the Benton-Franklin Fair & Rodeo.

Lopez Giddens acknowledged missing a report, calling it an “honest mistake” by her campaign treasurer.

Franklin County Courthouse in Pasco, WA. File Tri-City Herald

A bad hire?

Lopez Giddens faults Killian for hiring a deputy clerk in May 2016 who had an active arrest warrant in King County.

Before being hired, the employee, a deputy clerk, was charged with a misdemeanor offense but the case was dismissed. Killian said the warrant apparently was not removed from the system.

He said Franklin County’s human resources office and the sheriff’s department do the background checks on county applicants. And more recently, an independent consultant is used to help vet job candidates.

Lopez Giddens said she would not relegate responsibility for background checks for people in her department to other agencies or departments. She would conduct her own checks on prospective employees.

“I would not want to take a chance,” she said.

The clerk in question has since resigned and no longer works for the county.

Killian and Lopez Giddens had no other challengers in the primary in August.

Killian received 65 percent of the vote. Lopez Giddens had 35 percent.

She’s raised about $12,200 for her campaign, according to PDC records. Killian reported he plans to raise and spend less than $5,000.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect Giddens Lopez did not work for Spanner in the past. She worked with him in her former capacity in the Benton County Clerk’s office.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514