When the boss is in the headlines, office culture gets 'weird' | KUOW News and Information

When the boss is in the headlines, office culture gets 'weird'

May 21, 2017

When public officials are under investigation, their employees say office culture can get weird. So how does government keep functioning? Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said this month he had to give up hopes for a second term in order to confront the lawsuit he’s facing and continue to run the city.


Murray has vehemently denied the lawsuit’s allegations of child sexual abuse. But he said the claims are too distracting for him to remain a candidate.  Murray canceled a press conference the day the lawsuit became public, but quickly resumed his normal schedule. He announced May 9 he was suspending his reelection campaign.

At the Washington State Auditor’s office, employees said they had to step into the breach when their boss Troy Kelley came under investigation in 2015. Deputy Auditor Jan Jutte said it came as a shock.

He sat in that office for an hour or two and then left and maybe never spoke to anyone.

“When the FBI shows up to serve you with a subpoena on behalf of the Treasury Department, you realize maybe you don’t know the whole story,” she said. Kelley was later indicted for stolen funds and tax evasion.

Jutte and the executive team ran the auditor’s office in Kelley’s absence. She said employees were distressed by the cloud hanging over Kelley, which stemmed from his prior business dealings. But she’s proud of the way her colleagues pulled together and kept the office on track.

“It didn’t take them very long to just trust us, and they put their heads down and just kept doing their job,” she said.

Last year a federal jury acquitted Kelley of one count, but deadlocked on 14 others. Kelley returned to work – Jutte said it was “weird.” He moved his office to a “secure” building away from other managers, that was inaccessible to journalists as well.

“When the light was on in the office he was using out there, people would go different ways in the building to not have to walk by his door,” she said. “To some degree he sat in that office for an hour or two and then left and maybe never spoke to anyone.”

Jutte said they went two or three months without speaking to one another, and Kelley never told her goodbye when he left. He still faces a retrial.  

Government around here ground to a halt

These cases concern claims made against elected officials from the years before they took office. The scandal around Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon was different – it was very much about his time in office: using its resources to run for reelection, harass other officials, and conduct romantic affairs.

Scott North helped break these stories as a writer at the Everett Daily Herald starting in 2009. “That was the beginning of a series of scandals that sort of nested together like Russian dolls until 2013 when he resigned," he said. 

During that time North said Reardon largely dropped out of sight, which had big consequences for the county.

"He fell into the classic pattern of delay, deny, dissemble,” North said.  Reardon “made sure that he was unavailable, made sure he had his handlers step in front of anybody that was asking hard questions. And pretty much government around here ground to a halt.”

North said other elected leaders tried to fill the void, advocating on crucial issues like keeping Boeing jobs in town. But North said there’s no doubt that the scandals around Reardon and his staff took a long time to overcome. “From 2009 until his resignation in 2013, we lost some important momentum up here.”

In his resignation Reardon said, “It is impossible for me to describe to you the emotional and financial toll these relentless attacks have taken on my wife, my family and me.” He moved to California and was later fined by the Public Disclosure Commission for violating campaign laws.

When Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced his plans not to seek reelection, he was surrounded by longtime supporters. North said in contrast, by the time Reardon resigned, he was pretty much on his own.  

Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe said of Reardon’s departure, “I’m hoping that this will bring this chapter, of having to open your morning newspaper every day with shaking hands, to a close.”

It doesn't mean I'm going to stop firing people who lie, cheat or steal.

King County Sheriff John Urquhart reacted to a lawsuit detailing a 2002 rape allegation against him by going to the Seattle Times in person. He gave reporters there a binder of correspondence between him and his accuser, a former deputy.

“There certainly was no attempt to hide it or cover it up or do anything else with it,” Urquhart said. “That’s why I went to the Seattle Times, to be open about it.”

The lawyers who brought this woman’s claims to light are Julie Kays and Lincoln Beauregard, the same attorneys now suing Mayor Murray. Their lawsuit against Urquhart was on behalf of three officers who said they faced sexual discrimination and retaliation within the Sheriff’s Office. Two of them were fired after making false statements about an argument with a Metro bus driver.

Major Mitzi Johankneckt, the first woman to lead the King County SWAT team, is running for sheriff. She says recent sex abuse allegations against Urquhart influenced her decision to run.
Credit Mitzi Johanknecht

The woman who made the rape allegation also accused Urquhart of repeatedly stalking her and following her around the country. Urquhart denies all of these claims. The lawsuit also questioned his handling of them within the Sheriff’s Office. They’re now being investigated by the Seattle Police Department.

Urquhart is up for reelection this year. The turmoil of the lawsuit helped draw a challenger from within his office, Major Mitzi Johanknecht, who said the allegations have distracted from the agency’s mission.

“We need a sheriff who will lead by example and treat people with dignity and respect,” Johanknecht said.

Urquhart said he welcomes Johanknecht’s candidacy. “I think everybody becomes a better candidate when they have an opponent,” he said.  But he said the lawsuits are not a distraction, they’re the result of holding officers accountable for misconduct. Some of the officers he’s fired have then sued alleging discrimination.

“That’s a cost of doing business,” Urquhart said. “But it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop firing people who lie, cheat or steal.”

Urquhart said he wanted to address their discrimination claims at trial, but in April the County Executive settled the case for $1.35 million.  

Urquhart said the overall work of the Sheriff’s Office has been unaffected by these lawsuits.