Working from Europe? Ethics investigation dogged Durkan's HR director

Records obtained by Crosscut show the Human Resources director nominee was under investigation for working out of the city for two of her seven months as interim director.

A view of the Seattle Municipal Tower, where Seattle Human Resources Department is housed, on Jan. 19, 2018 in Seattle. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Before she withdrew her nomination to be Seattle’s permanent director of the city Human Resources Department, interim director Sue McNab was under an ethics investigation into the number of hours she spent out of the office, according to documents obtained through a public records request.

According to the records, McNab worked remotely from another city or country for nearly two months out of seven total from when she began on March 26, 2018, through October. That’s in addition to days she worked from home in Seattle and 17 vacation days she used.

In the position, McNab has been making $190,000 a year.

McNab’s time spent out of the office did not go unnoticed by department employees, and the ethics investigation opened in September, according to the records, about the time that her nomination by Mayor Jenny Durkan was expected to be confirmed by the Seattle City Council.

McNab’s remote work sites were in far-flung places. According to the documents, she said she worked much of the time outside the continental United States, with all or part of three days in France, four days in Puerto Rico, 11 days in Canada and three days in what was only labeled as “Europe.” The documents also mention five days apiece in Florida, in Eastern Washington and Bellingham and one day at Hood Canal.

In interviews and notes, McNab told the ethics investigators that she was, in fact, working from all of those locations — speaking with staff on the phone, reading reports, monitoring investigations. While in France, McNab said she worked on investigations into conduct at Seattle Public Utilities and Seattle City Light. In a handwritten note to investigators, McNab said, “All these dates were agreed to by the [Mayor’s Office] prior to hire. And please note, all goals established by [the Mayor’s Office] were achieved and the work was completed.”

Reached by phone Monday, McNab said she had accepted the position on the condition she could maintain her prior obligations, but nevertheless should have acted differently in retrospect. She acknowledged that part of her reason for withdrawing was due to the issues raised in the investigation.

“I’m a neophyte when it comes to government,” she said. “I have really firm commitments to community, and it was getting difficult for me to keep up with those things in evening and weekends.”

An earlier statement from the Mayor’s Office appears to back up McNabb’s statements, mentioning that she had “previously scheduled obligations” when Durkan hired her.

But the ethics office struggled to account for all of her work. McNab provided notes for some, but not all, of the days she worked remotely. Many of her calendar entries from the period were sparse.

In a transcript of an interview between McNab and Wayne Barnett, director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, Barnett pushed McNab on whether she in fact worked eight hours every day she was working out of the city.

“During these times that you are working remotely, are you literally working 8 hours?” Barnett asked.

“That is the only thing the [computer record-keeping] system will allow you to do,” McNab answered, adding later, “Some of those days, I worked only 6 hours, some of those days I worked 12 hours.”

McNab was brought on by Mayor Durkan to serve as the interim director of the Department of Human Resources after its former director, Susan Coskey, resigned. McNab's chief task was to usher in the continuing consolidation of the city’s disparate HR offices into one centralized department and to help with Durkan’s anti-harassment efforts, at a time when the city was still shaken by harassment allegations against former Mayor Ed Murray. McNab said she believes she provided the leadership Durkan sought.

Prior to joining the city, McNab was vice president and chief people services officer of Pemco Insurance. She also volunteers extensively, including with the Girl Scouts of America, Humanities Washington and as a member of the community advisory board of Cascade Public Media, Crosscut’s parent company.

McNab had served in her acting role for five months when Durkan announced in late August that she was forwarding McNab to the city council for consideration to be the permanent director.

McNab was scheduled to be confirmed by the council in mid-September, along with Durkan’s nominees for the Department of Neighborhoods and the Department of Finance and Administrative Services. It was around this time, however, that the ethics department opened its investigation and the council tabled McNab’s nomination, even as the nominees for the other two departments moved forward.

In December, Crosscut reported that McNab was withdrawing her application. “I've come to recognize that through the demands of the position, I've had to put my commitments and Board positions in community organizations on hold and I find that my heart and passions are truly there,” she wrote in her resignation letter.

When reached for comment Monday, a mayor’s office spokesperson referred to the comment provided when McNab withdrew her application. “The Mayor is grateful for her efforts and accomplishments over the past ten months with the HR team,” a spokesperson said. “Coming out of retirement, Sue had a series of previous scheduled obligations and continued to lead One HR consolidation, the City’s first Workforce Equity Strategic Plan and labor relations.”

Speaking Monday, McNab said she had no regrets about taking the job.  

She will leave the city HR position Feb. 2. Durkan announced last week that Bobby Humes of the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation would take over as interim director, beginning Feb. 4.

The ethics office's Barnett declined to comment on the status of the investigation.

In the end, McNab said she was not wired to be in the public sector. “I think,” she said, “I would much rather be a corporate executive type than a government person.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.