A sergeant who used hand-sanitizer to draw a penis on his female subordinate’s car. Rape investigators accused of joking about masturbating to victims’ stories. These are just a few of the scandals to rock the Seattle-area sheriff’s office over the past four years.
And after settling a sexual-harassment lawsuit for $1 million in 2013, the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) is again embroiled in a legal fight over its treatment of female officers. This time, two sheriff’s deputies and one sergeant are accusing the county of gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual-orientation based harassment, and retaliation. And discovery for the civil suit is already dredging-up new allegations of misconduct at KCSO, with a former head of internal affairs seeking whistleblower protections before he talks.
Central to many of these claims is King County Sheriff John Urquhart, 69, who was elected amid promises to clean up the corruption-plagued agency. Urquhart has been with KCSO since 1980, working his way through roles such as narcotics detective and spokesman before beating incumbent Republican Sheriff Steve Strachan in 2012. Urquhart’s tenure so far, however, has been ignominious, involving the two sexual-harassment lawsuits, a cop convicted of pimping his wife and selling his colleagues steroids, a bogus “sex trafficking bust,” a chief-of-staff with polygraph problems, and more.
In this latest lawsuit, initially filed in April 2015, two former King County deputies and one current sergeant seek damages from King County for gender-based harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. The complaint specifically calls out the actions of Sheriff Urquhart, Major Sean Ledford, and Sergeant Dewey Burns.
Burns, a supervisor in the Metro Transit Division, had been the subject of a 2014 incident involving defensive tactics instructor Melissa Deer. A sworn statement from Deer claims he grabbed her crotch during a training exercise “knowing full well that his hand was never supposed to be near my crotch.”
“I was shocked, angry and pissed off,” wrote Deer. “I asked him ‘What are you doing?’ He shrugged and acted like it was a joke.” Deer called the incident “degrading,” “sexist,” and “a sexual assault.”
In 2015, another allegation involving Burns surfaced. In this case, text messages showed the sergeant making racist, anti-gay, and sexually explicit comments to other staffers, including a female subordinate, Deputy Amy Shoblom. The texts were “shocking and can’t be ignored or explained away,” said Urquhart, who fired Burns over the content deemed racist and homophobic.
However, Urquhart did not see anything inappropriate about the sexually charged content Burns exchanged with Shoblom, finding that “the vast majority” of the texts had been welcomed by her and “on many occasions Deputy Shoblom instigated the highly sexualized texting between the two.”
That’s not how Shoblom, a nine-year veteran of KCSO, describes it. The 33-year-old is one of three plaintiffs in the current suit, along with Diana Neff, 50, and Julie Blessum, 45. After Shoblom transferred to the Metro Transit division in 2013, Burns had “direct supervisory authority” over Shoblom, according to the suit, and she considered it “a condition of employment” to take his antics in stride.
These antics included texting her half-naked photos of women he was sleeping with, asking during a roll call if she had “hooked up” with a male deputy, and drawing a penis on the hood of her car with hand sanitizer, among other things, according to the complaint.
After complaining to a captain and getting no response, Shoblom told another sergeant, Lou Caballero, about what was going on and he also filed a complaint. In August 2015, both were fired, allegedly for lying about an argument with a bus driver.
Neff and Blessum, meanwhile, say they were subject to a different sort of harassment/discrimination. Both worked in KCSO’s Shoreline precinct, and both were gay. Neff, who had been with the sheriff’s office since 1987, became a sergeant in 2000 and was assigned to Shoreline in 2006. Blessum came to the precinct in 2012. Major Ledford arrived as precinct chief in 2013.
Ledford’s presence changed things in the department, according to the lawsuit. He “refused to speak to Neff or other women who held positions of authority” and treated them in other discriminatory ways. At one point, he and the precinct’s second-in-command allegedly tried to have a female storefront deputy reassigned because “her hair was askew” and they didn’t think it made a good first impression. The woman had just gone through chemotherapy treatment for cancer, and her “hair” was a wig.
Both Neff and another female sergeant filed complaints with superiors that they say were ignored. Neff spoke with Urquhart’s top deputy, Anne Kirkpatrick, who allegedly told her the sheriff said she could make it work or leave.
Eventually, Ledford had Neff and the other female sergeant who had complained transferred out of Shoreline, replacing them both with male sergeants. (Neff’s replacement immediately hung up a poster on his door “that disparaged and mocked transgender persons,” the suit says.) Within 18 months of Ledford taking over, the precinct had gone from having three women in positions of leadership to having none.
Blessum, who remained in the precinct as a deputy, claims that “in Neff’s absence, gay bashing became par for the course at Shoreline.” She requested a transfer out of Shoreline, which was denied, and eventually quit in November 2014.
Neff, who had moved on to another precinct, was soon subjected to an internal affairs investigation that her complaint says was instigated by Sheriff Urquhart.
“A longstanding member of the KCSO’s officer’s guild leadership has stated that in all his years he has never seen the sitting Sheriff act as a complainant in an internal investigation,” it states. Neff was eventually cleared of all wrongdoing.
“Given the breadth of the inquiry and the fact that litigation is ongoing, it is very difficult to meaningfully respond,” says Sergeant Cindi West, media relations officer for the sheriff’s office, when contacted for comment. “The lawsuit challenges certain actions taken by the Sheriff’s Office against two former officers and one current officer. The Sheriff’s Office stands by those actions and decisions, contends they are about officer accountability not harassment, and is confident a jury will view them similarly.”
A trial for the civil suit is scheduled for January 2017.
Meanwhile, case discovery is turning up all sorts of new allegations about potential King County corruption. For instance, Chris Barringer, the sheriff’s former campaign manager and current chief of staff, supposedly passed a polygraph test in 2012 as a condition of employment. But according to Detective Tiffany Atwood, who reviewed the test results, Barringer should never have been hired. He showed “a significant response” to questions about whether he had ever solicited or accepted a bribe, noted Atwood, which means he “did not pass his polygraph” even though a supervisor had told her he had. Barringer had also disclosed marijuana use that he hadn’t admitted to on a background questionnaire, which is an automatic disqualifier.
Atwood brought up her concerns about the old polygraph in 2015, when she heard that Barringer had been accepted into the state police academy. This sparked an internal complaint, during which then-Internal Investigations Unit commander Jesse Anderson tried to review the polygraph results personally but was told by Urquhart they were confidential. “The Sheriff said… his word is all that IIU needs to address that issue,” he reported.
The attorney for Shoblom, Blessum, and Neff said this is relevant to her case because it gets to credibility issues. Urquhart, who had signed a certified document saying Barringer passed the polygraph, told the Seattle Times that the lawyer was simply trying to obfuscate the real issues and “manipulate public opinion.”
Another recent controversy has involved D.J. Nesel, an employee of KCSO since 1991. Nesel became head of the internal investigations unit in 2012 but left the position 18 months later citing an inability to work with Urquhart, whom he characterized in a Sept. 6 deposition as meddling and moody.
Nesel stated in the deposition that he had been threatened over his testimony and, in a Sept. 20 declaration, claimed it was county lawyer Mark Stockdale who had threatened him, during an Aug. 28 telephone conversation. Nesel said Stockdale’s statements “implicated, to put it lightly, my employment with the Sheriff’s office,” and were repeated at a meeting the next day.
Stockdale later tried to offer a “clarification,” stated Nesel, but “I know what was said to me and how it was said and what the intent was.” Nesel said he was claiming whistleblower status and protections from retaliation by the sheriff’s office or King County.
In an email, King County spokeswoman Cindi West pointed out that deposition testimony “is not subject to cross examination and provides far from a complete record.”
Maybe so, but Nesel’s deposition still doesn’t look good for the county. He stated that he was “dumbfounded” to learn that Sheriff Urquhart and Major Ledford had been conducting their own secret investigation into Diana Neff long before turning the case over to internal affairs, a situation he called “ludicrous” and “out of whack.” Nesel also claimed that Urquhart had made disrespectful and disturbing comments about women, although he couldn’t say specifically what the statements were because the county contends they are protected by attorney-client privilege, since county lawyers had been present in the room.
Urquhart was once the subject of an internal complaint, in 2003, alleging harassment/discrimination, dishonesty, ridicule, and conduct unbecoming an officer, including making “inappropriate comments on the radio about the deputies” and “demeaning behavior [that] created a hostile work environment.” However, the complaints portrayed Urquhart as an equal-opportunity irritant and, aside from finding that Uquhart’s “management style failed to meet Department standards as a supervisor” and “created apprehension, lack of trust, and low morale,” internal affairs cleared him of all allegations.
But according to Nesel’s September deposition, Urquhart’s more-recent statements about women revealed “some deeply rooted issues going on there, and I think it affects his command and affects our department in a negative basis.”
“Sexism, discrimination based upon gender, and the creation of a hostile work environment for female employees is a long standing problem and pervasive throughout [KCSO]... from Sheriff Urquhart on down,” states the latest lawsuit from female officers.
The first lawsuit came in January 2013, with three longtime deputies with King County’s Special Assault Unit alleging sexual harassment and retaliation. Specifically named in the suit were Sergeants Anthony Provenzo and Paul Mahlum, who managed the Special Assault Unit.
Perhaps most disturbingly, the complaint alleges that Provenzo and Mahlum regularly made inappropriate sexual comments about rape victims. The managers “would state ‘say it slower, so I can close my eyes,’ and ‘I need a box of tissues’ while [deputies] were discussing the facts of their investigation,” the suit claims. “The comments were sexually suggestive of Provenzo and Mahlum fantasizing and masturbating to the details of a sexual assault.”
According to the plaintiffs Belinda Ferguson, Janette Luitgaarden, and Marylisa Priebe-Olson, Provenzo and Mahlum also “sexually harassed, verbally abused,” and “discriminated against” female officers “on a daily or almost daily basis.” This included regularly “discussing the size of Belinda’s breasts” and making other comments about female officers’ anatomy—something seven male and female staffers attested to in documents submitted to the court.
Provenzo allegedly called himself “the Italian stallion,” kept pictures of his sons with Hooters waitresses on his desk, and “regularly talked about his sexual prowess.” He allegedly told Ferguson not to bother fully investigating sexual assaults that happened on the Muckleshoot Indian reservation because it happens there “all the time.”
King County settled with the women for $1 million in December 2013, without admitting any wrongdoing. Sergeants Provenzo and Mahlum were each sentenced by Sheriff Urquhart to one day’s suspension without pay.