KC Sheriff watchdog's resignation was preceded by turmoil and complaints

The Council plans to follow through with two investigations involving Charles Gaither. Meanwhile, he has filed a $1 million claim alleging he was mistreated because of his race.
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Charles Gaither resigned as director of King County's Office of Law Enforcement and Oversight on Sept. 5.

The Council plans to follow through with two investigations involving Charles Gaither. Meanwhile, he has filed a $1 million claim alleging he was mistreated because of his race.

A mess. That's one way to describe Charles Gaither's recent exit from a King County Sheriff's Office oversight post.

Gaither resigned earlier this month as the civilian director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, which accepts and monitors internal investigations for the Sheriff's Office. On his way out as director, Gaither said he had encountered resistance and a lack of support carrying out that work, raising questions about the county's commitment to the office and its mission.

But there was much more to the story than Gaither's decision to step down and the criticism he lobbed at the county.

Documents obtained from the King County Council through a public disclosure request offer a window into Gaither's turbulent tenure as the head of the oversight office and provide details about a rocky series of events that preceded his departure, some of which continue to unfold. The County Council plans to conduct two inquiries into matters involving Gaither. He, meanwhile, has filed a $1 million claim against the county saying he faced hostility on the job.

Commonly referred to as OLEO, the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, which is independent of the Sheriff's Office and reports directly to the Council, began operations in 2011. Gaither was appointed director that same year. Since then, two of his subordinates have lodged complaints against him.

One of these complaints originated last year. It involved an accusation that Gaither lost his temper toward a female staff member, Alejandra Calderon, and that she felt threatened by his behavior.

A subsequent investigation by a consultant found that Gaither had not violated a county harassment policy, but that he had raised his voice in the office when displeased with Calderon and others. The investigator also found that Gaither had the job title on Calderon's business cards changed from "office manager" to "policy and community relations manager" without getting the proper authorization.

Based on those findings, the Council's employment and administration committee initially considered disciplinary action against Gaither that would have included a one-week unpaid suspension, anger management counseling and other training. But, last October, they chose instead to have Gaither participate in additional training and work with the County Council chairman, then Larry Gossett, to address the issues raised during the investigation.

The county later entered into a contract for up to $11,500 with a job coach, who began working with Gaither in December to come up with a plan to improve his workplace interactions.

"Mr. Gaither would profit  greatly by learning to monitor what he is projecting emotionally in facial expression, gestures, vocal style," the job coach, Henry Richards, said in an assessment on March 3 of this year. "Mr. Gaither should work on skills and capacities that will help him maintain his composure in situations that are emotionally provocative or 'hot' for him."

Within months of that assessment another complaint surfaced. On Aug. 1, Tess Mullarkey, the investigative auditor in Gaither's office, formally requested whistleblower status from the County Council, saying that Gaither was mismanaging OLEO.

She accused him of acting unprofessionally, and of using extreme profanity at times. Mullarkey also said she was "coming forward to state that I fear for my safety and retaliation by Mr. Gaither." Among the materials she sent to the Council was a 43-page log chronicling office activities and Gaither's behavior beginning May 20, one week after she started her job.

Prompted by concerns about his behavior, which she viewed as erratic, Mullarkey spent $1,700 on security measures for her home and went to the Sheriff's Office to get in touch with an investigator who assesses threatening situations against county employees brought on by work related matters, according to information she forwarded to the County Council.

Reached by phone on Thursday, Mullarkey said that she did not want to speak on the record about her complaints against her former boss. But in her request for whistleblower status, she wrote: "I would not only characterize Mr. Gaither's body  language and manner of speaking as angry but I also feel he has the capability to lose it if he is put in a compromising position."

The county plans to further investigate Mullarkey's claims, the current Council Chair, Larry Phillips, said Wednesday.

In July, Gossett, now chair of the employment and administration committee, conducted an investigation into another set of allegations, which Sheriff John Urquhart made against Gaither.

Urquhart claimed that Gaither did not forward a citizen's complaint to the department's internal investigations unit in a timely fashion. The sheriff also said that the Gaither stood up over him and cursed at him during a June 9 meeting about that complaint. During the course of his investigation, Gossett also looked into whether Gaither was disrespectful to Mullarkey and another female staff member as he left the June 9 meeting.

Gossett concluded that Gaither had been hostile to Urquhart and that he had mishandled the complaint. But he did not find evidence that Gaither mistreated his two staffers.

In a letter to Gaither dated Tuesday Sept. 2, Gossett said that, based on the investigation's findings, the committee had decided again to consider imposing a one-week, unpaid suspension as a disciplinary action. Gaither said this week that he never received a copy of that letter, though he had some indication that a suspension was being discussed. He also questioned why the Council did not retain an outside investigator.

By Friday Sept. 5, Gaither had resigned.

But as accusations fly at Gaither, he is throwing a big one back at the county.

On Sept. 3, the day after the date on Gossett's letter about the disciplinary action, Gaither filed a $1 million claim against King County. In it, Gaither, who is black, alleges that during the last two years he was harassed and intimidated based on his race, a situation that caused him and the people around him severe stress and anxiety.

In the place on the claim form that asks, "Were you injured?" Gaither checked the box that said "yes" and described his injury as "Emotional distress."

During a phone interview late Tuesday night, Gaither said he felt that "there was blood in the water to get rid of me" since last year and he flatly denied many of the assertions in Mullarkey's whistleblower complaint.

“They’re trying to categorize me as some angry black dude,” Gaither said, as he discussed his time working with the Council and the Sheriff's Office. “The environment for me was hostile, in that everything I said was interpreted as anger. It was a jacket they wouldn’t let me take off."

“That sort of environment is what prompted me to say, 'screw this,' " Gaither added. "That’s why I filed the claim.”

Gaither also continues to dispute the accusation that his office mishandled the citizen complaint that Councilmember Gossett looked into during his investigation. 

The county ordinance that created OLEO does not give the office the authority to investigate citizen complaints. That responsibility falls within the Sheriff's Office's internal investigations unit. OLEO is tasked with receiving the complaints and ensuring that investigations are thorough and objective. The office is supposed to forward complaints it receives to the internal investigations unit within three business days. What Gossett's investigation found was that Gaither had not followed this three-day rule.

Urquhart told Gossett that Gaither only forwarded the complaint to internal investigations after the sheriff demanded that he do so, six business days after it was received by OLEO.

The citizen complaint in question involved a man named Steven Reynolds. Police from the Sheriff's Office confiscated two .22 caliber rifles and a 12-gauge shotgun from Reynolds' home last October while they, along with Department of Corrections officers, checked on a family member on probation. Reynolds complained about Sheriff's Office procedures to the agency's ombudsman, saying that he was having trouble getting his guns back. The deputy ombudsman then sent an email to Gaither's office about Reynolds' complaint. 

In Gaither's view, the complaint did not involve a specific officer, and it was therefore not necessary to turn it over to the internal affairs unit in three days.

"If you complain against a policy," said Gaither, "that’s not a complaint against a particular deputy."

During an interview on Tuesday, Urquhart did not want to delve into specifics about the former OLEO director's tenure, citing a non-disparagement agreement.

The allegations in Mullarkey's request for whistleblower status are wide-ranging in seriousness and type. She included details about Gaither's activities, which she claims are evidence that he showed "aggressive — bullish behavior or has been hostile and downright strange and unprofessional." 

Some examples included Gaither angrily asking her about her lunch break activities, putting his bare feet on his desk while talking to her, picking his cuticles until they bled and "creeping around and calling the office to know my whereabouts rather than calling me directly."

"Mr. Gaither is able to switch from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde in a matter of minutes," she wrote to the Council.

Confronted with those and other allegations, Gaither seemed taken aback. "I’m just in awe,” he said, adding that he had never yelled at Mullarkey and felt that he supported her as an employee. “I have taken my shoes off on occasion, but I don’t pick my cuticles like a crazy person," he said. "I may have said 'BS' once or twice but I don’t walk around cursing.”

The materials Mullarkey forwarded to the Council also include figures that may indicate the office was underperforming. OLEO is supposed to certify investigations within five days from the time they are complete. In 2013, before she began working for the office, no cases were certified in that time frame, according to the figures she provided. Of the 306 certified cases last year, only 70 were processed in less than 51 days. She also pointed to five complaint cases in 2013 that she said were not thoroughly reviewed.

Gaither said that the office fell behind last year because he alone was working to certify the investigations for about two months, and that at times he was receiving 20 to 25 cases per week. Documents he provided showed that he asked the Council for approval to hire additional temporary and full time workers in 2011 and 2013.

“We were playing catch up for the majority of 2013 and Council knew that,” he said. “It’s been a one-man shop for a long time.”

In addition to investigating Mullarkey's allegations, Phillips said the county would also launch a formal inquiry into whether Gaither's office had improperly used a Sheriff's Office computer system to access complaint case files.

Among the items his office reviewed, was the complaint history for Capt. Ted Boe, who caught flak after news leaked about an email he sent to rank-and-file cops describing an initiative in Skyway "designed to kick ass and take names."

Gaither expressed concerns about the email in media reports. That did not sit well with some people at the Sheriff's Office. 

"It's clear you were searching for other cases involving Captain Boe that you could use to embarrass the KCSO, as you attempted to do when you were interviewed for the news story," said the Sheriff's Office senior human resources manager, Lance King, in a Sept. 2 letter to Gaither. In the letter, King also said Gaither's staffers inappropriately used the database to access other cases as well.

Responding to earlier questions from King about why OLEO staffers had accessed the database, Gaither, in an Aug. 27 letter, said his office was going through the cases to update a complaint tracking spreadsheet. 

"I think it’s baseless and it’s also disingenuous," Gaither said on Tuesday night, referring to the accusations that his office had misused the computer system.

Councilmember Gossett did not return calls asking for comment about the circumstances surrounding Gaither's departure. But Council Chair Larry Phillips noted that the level of discipline the Council considered handing down to Gaither before he resigned was uncommon. "I can't remember the last time we took that action," he said, "suspending someone without pay."

Phillips was reluctant to say much more about Gaither. "The record speaks for itself," he said, referring repeatedly to the trail of complaints and other documents describing turbulence related to the former director's time at OLEO.

Gaither was chagrinned by the scope of the latest allegations.

“It paints me in a false light," he said, "and it damages my reputation.”

Urquhart emphasized that he continues to welcome and support OLEO's mission of providing effective civilian oversight of the Sheriff's Office complaint process.

But, "the key to civilian oversight," the sheriff said, "is it has to have credibility, first with the Council and the executive. It has to have credibility with the public, but it has to have credibility with my officers as well. It has to have credibility."

The investigations into the Mullarkey complaint and the circumstances around OLEO's use of the computer database system will begin soon, according to Phillips. The Council chairman also said that a new OLEO director would be named in the coming days.

  

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