OLYMPIA, Wash. – Kitsap County’s eagerness to cover up the illegal lobbying activities of one of its department heads has already cost taxpayers thousands of dollars, and it may only be the tip of the iceberg.
Pierce County Superior Court Judge Gretchen Leanderson last week hit the county with $12,000 in penalties plus another $2,500 in fees and costs in connection with a probe into the actions of Kelly O’Neal, coordinator of the Kitsap County Developmental Disabilities Program.
In 2011, O’Neal apparently sent emails from her work address to the heads of similar agencies in counties all over Washington, encouraging them to pressure their local representatives into passing a budget that gave more funding to programs O’Neal and other bureaucrats favored – a violation of state laws preventing public officials from using public resources to lobby.
The emails came to the attention of the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based government watchdog group, which filed a public records request for all of her emails during that time period to see how extensive O’Neal’s lobbying activities were.
The county responded with several hundred documents.
“The problem was, we knew for a fact they didn’t give us everything we wanted,” said James Abernathy, the Freedom Foundation’s general counsel. “We’d already gotten other emails from the people O’Neal sent them to, and a lot of those hadn’t been included in Kitsap County’s response to our information request. That made us wonder what someone was trying to hide.”
The Freedom Foundation responded by filing a lawsuit against the county in November, and this spring the county offered to have judgment entered against it.
Kitsap County surrendered several thousand previously withheld emails and even agreed to pay attorneys’ fees and litigation costs.
The case was heard in Pierce County to avoid a conflict of interest, and last week Judge Leanderson finalized the order.
“In the grand scheme of things, $15,000 alone isn’t going to inspire much change in Kitsap County,” Abernathy said. “But there are larger issues at play here. However passionately Kelly O’Neal as an individual may feel about her beliefs, she has a responsibility to perform her duties in accordance with the laws of this state – and she clearly abused the public trust in this case.
“But even worse,” he added, “when one of its department heads was caught red-handed breaking the law, the county government as a whole responded by engaging in a cover-up. That’s simply appalling.”
O’Neal was never punished for her actions, Abernathy noted, and is still serving in the same position.
“What does that tell you about Kitsap County’s leadership?” he asked. “Not only does it shrug off lawless behavior on the part of one of its senior officials, but the wrong is compounded when the county itself breaks the law by knowingly stonewalling a valid public records request.”
The penalty award only relates to the county’s subsequent cover-up and improper withholding of public records, Abernathy explained. The Freedom Foundation is continuing its investigation beyond simply O’Neal’s activities to learn if such improper conduct is more pervasive throughout the county, and could ultimately file a complaint with the Washington State Ethics Board.
“We elect our leaders with the expectation they’ll uphold the law,” Abernathy said. “We expect no less from the staff members hired by those elected leaders. In this case, the residents of Kitsap County were let down on both counts.”
Freedom Foundation Press Release by Jeff Rhodes