Ex-KID board member testifies he was told to fire managers

The Kennewick Irrigation District board hired former board member Doug Grover as secretary-manager in 2007 on condition he terminate two managers, the district's former operations manager testified Tuesday.

Harry Fox testified in Benton County Superior Court that Grover confided to him that getting rid of the targeted employees was part of the agreement that put Grover into the agency's top management position.

"(Grover) said as a condition of his being hired he had to fire (former engineering manager Brad Wellenbrock) and me. But he'd do what he could to save me," Fox testified.

But KID attorney George Fearing said in opening remarks to the jury, "Mr. Grover may have said that, but it was wrong. He may have been trying to deflect criticism of himself."

Wellenbrock sued the agency for wrongful termination, alleging it was retaliation for whistleblowing about a board member's alleged misconduct.

"Yes, there was whistleblowing, but (Wellenbrock) was not fired because of it," Fearing said.

The civil lawsuit claims the board allegedly engineered Wellenbrock's dismissal from the $81,000-a-year job after he pointed out inappropriate acts by Loren Watts. He claims it was Watts who allegedly took advantage of his KID position to benefit himself and his company, Watts Construction.

Wellenbrock's attorney, Jack Sheridan of Seattle, said the trial would look at several examples of board members' personal dealings and how they improperly interacted with KID staff.

"We are alleging improper governmental action for personal profit," Sheridan told the jury.

Sheridan said evidence will show Watts and other board members -- William Kinsel, Ron Pratt, John Pringle and John Jaksch, who was appointed to fill the vacancy after Grover resigned from the board to become secretary-manager -- were KID customers who benefited by being on the board.

Jaksch, Kinsel and Pringle allegedly had unmetered water for their agricultural lands. And Pratt was project manager for the Hansen Park residential subdivision, for which Watts Construction was the exclusive general contractor.

Fox was the first witness in what is expected to be a two-week jury trial before Judge Bruce Spanner.

Fox said Wellenbrock was put on administrative leave immediately after Grover took over as secretary-manager from interim manager Vic Johnson.

Things were going to change, Fox said, adding, "Everybody was walking on eggshells. Brad was filing a lawsuit."

Fox was concerned about losing his job, too, but once Wellenbrock sued, the pressure eased, he said.

"We understood that there would be a hold on all terminations until things settled down," Fox said. He remained as operations manager until February 2010 when an internal affairs investigation, initiated by Grover's successor, Charles Freeman, prompted Fox to resign.

Fox testified Tuesday that he and Wellenbrock were concerned about several of Watts' actions. Those included:

w Watts ripping out a KID weir box so he could build a water connection for one of his customers, Antoinette Burnside.

w Forcing entry into a gated KID pond south of Gage Boulevard at Sky Meadows Avenue for the purpose of installing a pump to fill Watts Construction water trucks, without having authorization to take the water.

w Coercing Fox to rent a dump truck for KID work from Watts instead of using one from an equipment rental company.

w Threatening Fox "with my job" because of a dispute about Watts taking too much water from a Hansen Park irrigation source and creating a low-pressure problem for hundreds of KID customers.

A KID canal operator discovered the weir box situation.

"(The operator) was quite upset. No authorization was given. It should have gone to KID engineering and to the board (for approval)," Fox said.

Fox said Wellenbrock reported the situation to Vic Johnson, interim secretary-manager, who tried to resolve the conflict by having an outside engineering firm design a replacement weir box that Watts Construction would install.

But Watts ignored the new design, Fox said.

No metering system was installed, as required, for measuring the water Burnside would receive.

The apparent illegal entry at the KID pond was reported to Johnson, who suggested finding another source of water for Watts' water trucks, Fox said.

But Fox said the Hansen Park water system incident escalated to where he needed to cut off Watts' access.

"Watts called (and was) upset. He was very angry. He told me he'd have my job," Fox testified.

Johnson's fix was to move the water truck refilling station to another location and activate an unused weir box connection.

Fearing told the jury that Watts will testify and explain his actions.

Grover, however, is not expected to testify.

"We don't know where he is. He disappeared before we could get a subpoena on him," Sheridan said.

Testimony is expected to resume today in the trial that is expected to last two weeks.