Kennewick mayor pro tem demands councilman’s resignation for investigating drug rumor

Here’s the related story: Kennewick council censures John Trumbo for ‘misuse of office’

It started with a rumor.

Kennewick’s mayor pro tem, Steve Lee, has demanded a fellow city councilman resign from office and apologize for sparking a sheriff’s department investigation into alleged illegal drug use at Lee’s business — an allegation based on an unfounded rumor.

The investigation, which found no wrongdoing, was prompted by a complaint from City Councilman John Trumbo, a former reporter who has clashed repeatedly with fellow council members.

Trumbo said he also personally investigated the 2-year-old, fourth-hand rumor that illegal drugs were available in outlandish amounts in the employee break room at Lee’s marijuana shop in Finley.

After Trumbo’s complaint, a Benton County sheriff’s detective concluded the allegation was groundless, leading Lee to demand an apology from Trumbo.

Lee, who has been Kennewick’s mayor pro tem since joining the council in 2018, also has called for Trumbo to step down.

Trumbo has refused.

“I asked for an apology and that was definitely not given,” Lee told the Herald.

Lee called the claims ludicrous.

“It’s like accusing me of riding a unicorn,” he said.

Trumbo told the Herald there is no reason to apologize.

“What for? Doing my duty as a citizen?” he said.

Trumbo invoked his status as a retired reporter from the Tri-City Herald when taking his “findings” to the sheriff’s office in January.

He told the detective that he interviewed witnesses and left his city council business card on the former employee’s car, according to a copy of the sheriff’s report obtained by the Herald.

The detective conducted his own interviews and found nothing. And he told Trumbo to stop investigating.

But Trumbo kept talking about it.

Trumbo said he didn’t intend to say anything about the investigation until Lee asked for an apology and his resignation.

“When a city councilman demands an apology, that’s newsworthy and the reason for it should be discovered,” he told the Herald.

Trumbo said he doesn’t intend to pursue the rumors any further.

“I’m out of this,” he said.

But on Tuesday night, the Kennewick council voted 5-2 to censure Trumbo for misusing his council position by conducting an unauthorized investigation. He was removed from all board and commission appointments for the rest of the year.

Trumbo protested the move, saying he did not surrender his right to report criminal activity by being elected to the city council. And he maintained he did not invoke any special privileges when he looked into it.

A council distraction

City council members call the conflict a distraction but insist it isn’t interfering with their ability to do their job setting policy for the city of 82,000.

“I don’t think we have a council in division. We have an individual on the council that is in division with other city council members a majority of the time,” Mayor Don Britain told the Herald.

This isn’t the first fight Trumbo has stirred up as a five-year member of the council.

Just eight months ago, he asked Councilman Steve Young to resign after Young and his employer, a Hanford contractor, were successfully sued for workplace discrimination.

Young refused to step down and the council voted 3-2 to pay his legal bills to defend a recall effort.

Trumbo voted against paying Young’s lawyer. And Britain said it’s clear that there has been mistrust since then.

“You have a group of at least five that tend to understand what their job is. It’s pretty much one individual who seems to constantly be at odds with a majority of the council,” the mayor said, calling it a drain on city time. “Staff has to get involved in a lot of this stuff.”

“It’s hard to stay focused,” said City Manager Marie Mosley. “There is an impact when there are distractions at the council level.”

Fourth-hand rumor

Lee and his wife own Green2Go, a state-licensed cannabis business that legally sells marijuana at stores in unincorporated Benton County in Finley and Tokio, north of Pasco, in Adams County.

The business operates under rules laid out after Washington voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2012.

According to the sheriff’s report, Trumbo heard a rumor that a former employee “observed Steve Lee with a large amount” of an illegal drug in the employee break room.

Trumbo told the detective he heard the rumor from a downtown Kennewick business leader, who heard it from the owner of a Richland business, who heard it from his own employee, who heard it from a then-girlfriend who once worked at Green2Go.

The former marijuana store employee had been fired more than two years earlier.

Steve Lee

Trumbo told the sheriff’s detective he spoke to the Richland store owner and tried to contact the former marijuana store employee after searching for information online about her and confirming her voter status with the county auditor’s office.

He went to her Kennewick home on Jan. 10, leaving his council business card and a note requesting she contact him. She never called.

The next day, he went with sheriff’s Deputy Brad Klippert, who is also a state legislator, to the sheriff’s department office in Kennewick. Klippert stayed in the interview while Trumbo spoke with Detective Sgt. Bob Brockman.

Sheriff’s officials later told the Herald that Klippert was acting in his capacity as a deputy and was not involved in the matter beyond helping Trumbo file a report.

Brockman interviewed Lee’s former marijuana store employee who denied ever seeing anything illegal at the shop, nor had she spoken to anyone who had, said the sheriff’s report.

She admitted she was terminated for performance issues, but told Brockman she did not have issues with that, according to the report.

‘Found no credibility’

Brockman also spoke with Lee, who volunteered to come to the sheriff’s office for an on-the-record interview.

According to the report, Lee laughed and called the rumor “preposterous.” Non-marijuana drugs at a marijuana store would be bad for business, he said.

Lee told Brockman surveillance cameras cover every inch of the business except for toilets in the restrooms.

The system includes built-in redundancies to ensure all areas are covered if a camera goes down.

It was in place in the store’s original Finley location, as well as the new one when it moved across Highway 397.

Brockman concluded the allegation was unfounded.

“We found no credibility to the complaint made that is true and accurate,” Lt. Erik Magnuson, who supervises the detectives, told the Herald. He said no further action is planned.

John Trumbo
John Trumbo

In the end, Brockman told Trumbo his “investigation” was “done.”

And he advised the former employee to contact the sheriff’s office if Trumbo tried to contact her again, according to the report.

She also could not be reached by the Herald.

The Richland shop owner who talked to Trumbo in January told the Herald last week he was questioned by someone he described as a “reporter” but he wouldn’t identify him and was assured his involvement would be anonymous.

He said he was shocked that he was identified in the investigation report and that a private conversation with a friend had reached “ears I had not intended.” He asked to be left out of the matter.

Lee said the rumors could be grounds for a slander lawsuit, but he’s focused on personal family issues and does not have time for “retribution.”

“My involvement on city council is about making our community a better place, to show people you can be a good, nice person and do good every day,” he said. “I am 100 percent focused on this thought.”

California slander suit

It is not the first time Trumbo’s pursuit of a rumor has gotten him in trouble.

In 1982, while working as a reporter for the Grass Valley Union in northern California, Trumbo pursued rumors of drug abuse involving a local pastor and school founder.

William Mansdoerfer, a Grass Valley minister and Christian school founder, filed a $5.4 million slander suit against the paper even though it had not published any stories.

Mansdoerfer, who died in 2016, claimed Trumbo slandered him by telling witnesses he was a drug addict, had embezzled funds, mismanaged his school and operated the school in violation of state health regulations, according to a story at the time published by the Sacramento Bee, a sister publication to the Tri-City Herald.

The Bee reported that the Union and its insurance carrier, Firemen’s Fund, reached a $27,500 out-of-court agreement with Mansdoerfer.

Trumbo told the Herald it was a nuisance case that was settled to avoid court costs.

He said Mansdoerfer sued him again years later after both of them had moved to Weed, Calif.

Trumbo said he learned at the time that Mansdoerfer had applied to start a similar business in Weed and had an application pending before the local planning commission.

Trumbo said he shared information about the old lawsuit with the local officials and the application ended up being rejected. Mansdoerfer learned of Trumbo’s involvement and sued again, Trumbo said.

He believes that case was settled for $30,000.

“It too was a nuisance settlement to avoid the cost of going to trial,” Trumbo told the Herald.

Case records are not available online, but the first lawsuit story resurfaced in 2015 when Project Censored, which tracks media issues, recapped it, citing a story from the June 1982 edition of California Magazine.

Project Censored described Trumbo as the first reporter in California history to be sued for something he had not written.

Council split on investigation

The recent conflict highlights ongoing tensions on the Kennewick council, which is frequently split, with Trumbo and Lee often on opposite sides.

Kennewick City Hall Bob Brawdy bbrawdy@tricityherald.com

Council members also are divided on whether Trumbo acted appropriately, Councilman Bill McKay, who frequently votes with Trumbo in the minority, said Trumbo did the right thing because council members who hear rumors of criminal activity should act.

“I would expect them to turn that over to the police, just like he did,” McKay said, who voted against censuring Trumbo on Tuesday night.

Councilman Paul Parish said he’s encouraged Trumbo to shift gears since he took office in 2014.

“I like John, but he needs to become a city councilman and quit being an investigative reporter,” Parish said.

Britain, the mayor, said he was concerned about Trumbo leaving his city council business card on the car of a potential witness.

“It certainly appears he could be acting on behalf of the city council and the city of Kennewick, and he wasn’t. It was inappropriate,” Britain said.


How we reported this story?

The reporter filed a public records request April 5 with the Benton County Sheriff’s Office for a copy of the investigation. The report was released on April 8. 

She interviewed 10 people and attempted to reach several others. She also searched online sources of public documents to confirm information on previous lawsuits and other background.

The reporter and a photographer attended and recorded part of the Kennewick City Council meeting April 16 when the council voted for censure.

Click here for our coverage.

Stay up to date: Sign up for our Breaking News and other newsletters here.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.