Jury gives $750,000 to former KID manager

A Benton County Superior Court jury awarded $750,000 to the former engineering manager of the Kennewick Irrigation District who said he lost his job in retaliation for being a whistleblower.

Brad Wellenbrock claimed the five-member KID board hired Doug Grover as secretary-manager in late 2007 on the condition that he eliminate Wellenbrock's job.

Grover had resigned from the board two months earlier to apply for the top administrative post.

One of Grover's first acts was to put Wellenbrock on leave as a prelude to firing him in February 2008.

The jury's verdict came Friday morning after a half-day of deliberations.

"It is a wonderful outcome. The jurors were very supportive and complimentary," Wellenbrock's attorney, Jack Sheridan, told the Herald.

The two-week trial before Judge Carrie Runge included testimony from five former members of the KID board, as well as Wellenbrock and former Operations Manager Harry Fox.

Much of the trial focused on the allegations involving Loren Watts, who was KID board president in 2007, and his business, Watts Construction.

Wellenbrock had complained to his boss that Watts Construction ripped out a weirbox without permission to build a private irrigation system for a property owner who did not have KID water rights, that the company took excessive amounts of KID water from a system serving Hansen Park that summer and company workers forced their way into a fenced KID irrigation pond to fill Watts Construction water trucks.

While each of the incidents violated KID policies and practices, there were no allegations of criminal conduct.

Within an hour of the verdict, KID issued a statement blaming its "former manager" for not acting appropriately in dismissing Wellenbrock. The statement did not mention Grover by name.

"While the KID does not agree with the decision reached by the jury, KID respects the decision," said the release from Secretary-Manager Chuck Freeman. "No decision has been made regarding appealing the decision at this time."

The release noted that none of KID directors on the board in 2007 remain on the board today.

The irrigation district, which serves about 21,000 residential and agricultural customers in the region, did not say how the verdict would be paid.

Wellenbrock told the Herald the verdict will help restore his credibility.

"This may give me what I need to get a job. I'm still looking for work," he said.

Except for a temporary job at Hanford, he has been unemployed for five years.

"I want to thank the jury for sticking in there for the two weeks ... It feels good to have this behind us. It was fair," Wellenbrock said.

"Everybody (at KID) said I did a good job, then out of nowhere I was fired by someone who was not qualified to be the secretary-manager," he said.

KID's prepared statement issued Friday morning said the current KID board and management have taken steps "to ensure any potential whistleblower is heard and protected from retaliation."

Sheridan said the jury verdict specified $180,000 for back pay, $180,000 for future pay and $130,000 each for emotional distress, anxiety and humiliation.

Sheridan had asked for $7.4 million in damages -- almost equal to KID's annual budget.

Wellenbrock said the verdict gave his family a second reason to celebrate. Friday was his son's 10th birthday.

w John Trumbo: 582-1529; jtrumbo@tricityherald.com