Benton sheriff investigated after female county employees file complaints

Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher has been under investigation for nearly six months after several female employees filed formal complaints about his treatment of them.

County Commissioner Jerome Delvin confirmed Monday to the Tri-City Herald that the board asked for an independent investigation after the women came forward.

They are employees of other county agencies and not the sheriff’s office, he said.

The report on that investigation was expected to be presented at Tuesday’s commission meeting this week.

But, when news broke last week that Hatcher had been charged with felony witness tampering for allegedly forcing his wife to recant her domestic abuse claims, the investigator was asked to review the final report to the commissioners for any possible changes.

Delvin said the commissioners hired an attorney to oversee the investigation because of a potential conflict since Hatcher is another elected county official.

Jerome Delvin

He now plans to announce during the 9 a.m. regular board meeting in Prosser that the report will be delayed a week.

The attorney is expected at the Oct. 22 board meeting to deliver the report in executive session since it involves possible litigation.

Then, in public session, Chairman Shon Small and Commissioners Jim Beaver and Delvin could decide if it is appropriate to sign a letter condemning the sheriff, he said.

“That’s all we can do,” said Delvin, referring to Hatcher’s recent legal issues with both his criminal and divorce cases.

Commission controls budget

Commissioners only control the sheriff’s office budget in terms of allocating money.

Aside from that, the county board cannot call for an internal investigation as sheriffs have done when deputies were accused of domestic violence or other crimes.

“The commissioners can’t do anything if it’s elected (officials). Admonishment, but that is about it,” said Delvin. “That’s frustrating, but that’s the way it is. You have to deal with it and move on.”

Richland lawyer Scott Johnson who represents Hatcher in his criminal case told the Herald on Monday evening that it’s the first he’s heard about those complaints.

He said he’s shocked and troubled by the fact a county commissioner is discussing an ongoing investigation that hasn’t yet concluded.

“Publicly addressing a complaint while the process is ongoing is dangerous, unprecedented, and likely unlawful,” Johnson said. ”Publicly announcing this complaint is also another example of the political hit job that Benton County officials continue to engage in against Sheriff Hatcher.”

He has called the criminal investigation and charges politically motivated, and questioned why Delvin and Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller were initially involved.

“To me, it’s very clear what’s going on. There are elements in the county that have an agenda and they won’t stop until their agenda is met,” said Johnson. “And the sad part is I think this is just the tip of the iceberg for a lot of county officials. I believe there will be additional complaints coming out in the next week or two.”

The four unions representing Benton County Sheriff’s Office employees have called for their boss’ immediate resignation.

They issued a “united message” Thursday, one day after criminal charges were filed against Hatcher in Benton County Superior Court, saying the sheriff should not drag his employees, the reputation of the office or the community through his court process.

Hatcher, 56, is charged with the witness tampering, along with fourth-degree assault, a gross misdemeanor.

Both charges involve allegations of domestic violence since the victim was his estranged wife, Monica Hatcher.

The criminal case was filed days after Monica Hatcher sought a temporary protection order, claiming her husband strangled her in December 2018 and then forced her to recant that allegation after she recently reported it.

Jerry Hatcher

Jerry Hatcher emphatically denied the abuse allegations and has said he is not stepping down while dealing with the two cases.

Monica Hatcher said the abuse happened when she confronted her husband about his extramarital affair with Lisa Rector Thomas, a worker on his election campaign in 2017.

Thomas, who is campaigning for Richland City Council, could not be reached by phone or email by the Herald.

On Thursday, she went to Richland police to file a complaint about a June 2018 incident involving Prosecutor Miller.

Thomas said Miller made inappropriate advances, touching her on the leg and kissing her cheek, after she invited him to stop by her house for a bottle of water.

After Thomas’ report when public Friday, Miller responded on Facebook that Thomas was attacking him in retaliation for his involvement in the domestic violence allegation against Jerry Hatcher.

Miller disputes her account and said nothing inappropriate happened.

On Monday, Richland police Capt. Chris Lee confirmed that Thomas filed a report with the department.

Lee said because it is still an active investigation he could not release any more information about the complaint — including whether it is being handled in-house or has been sent to an outside agency.

Thomas picketed in front of the Richland Police Department for a short time Monday holding a “#MeToo” sign, referencing the movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Dual roles

Delvin told the Herald on Monday that he has known Monica Hatcher longer than he has known the sheriff.

He said Monica Hatcher came to his office voluntarily, in his dual roles as an acquaintance and a county commissioner, days before she filed her divorce petition. She talked for three hours.

Delvin — a retired Richland police officer — then reached out to Miller as the prosecutor.

Miller called Monica Hatcher and asked if she was willing to talk, then put her on speakerphone with Delvin and Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Ryan Brown also in the room, said Delvin.

That led Miller to ask state patrol Chief John R. Batiste for an out-of-county investigation.

“Then it was out of our hands, and we didn’t do anything else,” said Delvin.

The criminal charges were filed by the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office.

Delvin said he has regretted voting to appoint Hatcher as sheriff about six months after he was in office.

Hatcher was appointed in May 2017 to replace Sheriff Steve Keane following his retirement. The vote was 2-1, with Commissioner Beaver voting against Hatcher at the time.

Hatcher went on to win the election later that year, and re-election to a four-year term in 2018.

Worried about employees

“He’s manipulative and will skew the facts to give his version. It’s been a chore trying to work with him,” said Delvin. He described the sheriff as “a bully” and said Hatcher has been directed to only talk to the county administrator and no other office staff.

The commissioner said he is worried about the employees of the sheriff’s department and how their leader’s legal battles are affecting them.

“It’s sad that (Hatcher) didn’t have the common sense that maybe he needs to resign and not put all the sheriff’s department through all this,” he said. “But (Hatcher) is the kind of person that can’t figure this all out.”

“That’s a problem with counties — you have elected officials, and you can have a rogue one, and you can’t do anything,” Delvin said. “They’re there unless they want to resign or someone does a recall. You’re stuck.”

Hatcher’s attorney, Johnson, charged back that it has become clear some county officials will stop at nothing to try to damage his client.

“To that end, Sheriff Hatcher and his legal team, in consultation with attorneys representing other interested parties and the public interest, are working to determine how to move forward to protect Sheriff Hatcher and the public, given the clear collusion and conspiracy being waged.”

Letter to Herald.JPG
Related stories from Tri-City Herald

Kristin M. Kraemer covers the judicial system and crime issues for the Tri-City Herald. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years in Washington and California.