Collaboration in Civic Spheres

King County whistleblower fired day of complaint, but no foul

by March 12th, 2012

After she claimed she was forced to donate volunteer labor to a women’s sports officials association founded by her boss in King County government, a web designer in the Accountable Business Transformation unit of the county’s Department of Executive Services – Lynelle Hofman of Edmonds – lodged a formal ethics complaint with the King County Ombudsman’s Office and was fired the very same day by her division chief Mike Herrin.

The reason given was that she had accessed her supervisor’s computer about a month prior, to forward herself a series of emails between the supervisor and a personnel official about her pending request to be classified as an hourly employee so she could get paid for all hours she actually worked. Contemplated punishment for that action had ranged from a week’s suspension to worse, but had not been decided until several hours after Hofman formally lodged the ethics complaint against her supervisor in DES’s ABT sector, Cindy C-Wilson, of Shoreline.

Ombudsman finds against supervisor, who later resigns
C-Wilson (her last name) was found in a final report issued by the ombudsman’s office in late October to have violated the county’s ethics code by using her work computer to conduct a private business and by entering into a business relationship with a subordinate. C-Wilson voluntarily resigned in November, 2011, seven months after Hofman was discharged on the day of her complaint, April 6, 2011.

Hofman, now 44, subsequently lodged another complaint with the ombudsman’s office in September, of retaliatory firing. But in late January of this year the ombudsman’s office issued another report concluding the charge was not supported by a preponderance of evidence. The reports were obtained by Public Data Ferret using the Washington Public Records Act.

County tries to strip fired accuser of unemployment benefits, but fails
The county also tried to strip Hofman of her unemployment benefits after her discharge, but as shown in an administrative finding by the Washington State Employment Security Department, lost that battle.

Supervisor had firm for mentoring women’s sports officials
C-Wilson, now 57, was the PeopleSoft Education Supervisor/Lead in DES’s ABT, charged with standardizing and integrating formerly disparate county computer systems handling financial, personnel and payroll functions. On her own time she was also an avid and longtime girls high school volleyball referee, a board member of the Washington Officials Association, and the founder of a state registered limited liability corporation named AWESO-ME, or The Alliance of Women Sports Officials – Mentoring Excellence.

AWESO-ME misjudgment?
The ombudsman’s report on C-Wilson’s violations of the county ethics code says in its “statement of facts” that at C-Wilson’s request Hofman did logo development, design and design vendor outreach for the AWESO-ME web site; that this work was done on the job with county computers; and that more than 100 total emails about AWESO-ME matters were found on the hard drives of the county computers of the two, and a third employee. Hofman’s formal title was Educator/Consultant 3. In addition to web design she developed and conducted human resources training programs.

Hofman “intimidated” by boss C-Wilson, “did not know how to say ‘no'”
According to the ombudsman’s report Hofman said when C-Wilson first asked her to work on the site she “did not know how to say no” because she was “intimidated” by C-Wilson. She “hoped…C-Wilson’s requests would stop, but over time they increased.” Hofman told investigators C-Wilson never told her not to do the personal work using county facilities or on county time, although C-Wilson told them she definitely did take those precautions.

Despite the ombudsman’s findings against her, C-Wilson chose not to exercise her right to request a hearing within 20 days of the report’s issuance, and resigned the next month, in November of 2011. In an interview with Public Data Ferret, C-Wilson said she left the county because her job was scheduled to end in March 2012, and another opportunity arose. She now works from the Seattle area for the Utah-based PeopleSoft consulting firm, Gideon Taylor.

The portion of a newspaper’s salary database showing King County 2010 salary information was inoperative, but 2009 King County employee salary data (Excel, via shows C-Wilson’s 2009 salary for the county was $90,464, and Hofman’s $66,813. Hoffman’s salary had increased markedly by 2011, when she was being paid at the annual rate of $74,000, according to a state document.

Barred practice is not uncommon, both say
Speaking with Public Data Ferret, C-Wilson strongly rejected the claim she pressured Hofman into doing any AWESO-ME work, saying it was completely Hofman’s choice to comply with her request. “All she had to do was say no; she was very excited about it,” said C-Wilson. She added she was unaware of the county ethics code provisions against a supervisor entering into a business relationship with a subordinate, and knew of several other instances of it occurring in King County government. “I take responsibility for ignorance, if nothing else,” she said. Hofman, in a separate interview also said the practice of supervisors and subordinates working together on non-county business was not at all unknown in King County even though it was prohibited under the ethics code. She said in the six years she worked for King County, mostly in different positions in the county’s Benefits, Payroll and Retirement Operations division, “that kind of abuse of privilege was common.”

Hofman’s own transgression was cause for her firing, ombudsman finds
Hofman’s firing on April 6 of last year, the same day she filed the ethics complaint against C-Wilson was not retaliatory, the ombudsman’s office found. It determined in the second report that Hofman had sewn the seeds of her dismissal by using another employee’s computer without permission in March, 2011 to retrieve and forward to herself emails relating to her pay concerns. Both Hofman, in an interview with Public Data Ferret, and C-Wilson confirmed that employee was C-Wilson. Hofman confirmed the email string about her pay concerns was between C-Wilson and DES’s Human Resources Service Delivery Manager Gretchen Herbison. Hofman had been mistakenly classified as exempt from the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act, which resulted in her not being an hourly employee and not being compensated for all hours worked. C-Wilson discovered what had happened, reported it, and supervisors began to deliberate what sort of punishment was appropriate for Hofman as a result.

Public Data Ferret’s Ethics archive

Hofman committed “serious breach of trust”
The supervisor who discharged Hofman, identified by her and state documents as ABT division chief Mike Herrin, felt Hofman’s accessing C-Wilson’s computer was “a serious breach of trust,” according to the ombudsman’s report, because Hofman was a worker with a high security clearance, including “passwords affording access to payroll and private personnel data of thousands of county employees,” and should have exercised more discretion in IT security. C-Wilson said in an interview Hofman’s action was inappropriate because Herbison had not yet given C-Wilson permission to forward the emails to Hofman about her request to be paid for all hours worked.

Forcibly escorted from county offices without personal effects
Hofman said although her accessing of C-Wilson’s computer was “stupid, inappropriate, improper,” she “took such a liberty” because C-Wilson had repeatedly told her she would share the sought information with her. She added C-Wilson gave her clear permission to use her computer, in a far quieter spot than Hofman’s cubicle, to do work, which C-Wilson confirmed. Hofman stressed C-Wilson’s Outlook email account was open when she accessed the computer and no password entry occurred. “I didn’t think it would rise to the level” of termination, and it seemed odd that Herrin never spoke with her directly before she was summoned into his office several hours after making her ethics complaint, to be fired and then escorted from the building without her personal effects.

Hofman: there was an “information gap about the leap to termination”
Hofman conceded there was no direct evidence she was fired in retaliation for the ethics complaint but there was an “information gap about the leap to termination.” Hofman said within six months of her firing she landed a full-time job as an IT specialist in the health care field for a government employer she declined to name.

C-Wilson a stickler for rules in pink whistle imbroglio
Wilson also serves on the executive board of the Washington Officials Association, which sparked a wide controversy starting in the 2010 high school football season – including national media coverage – after announcing it would discipline more than 140 referees who didn’t get WOA’s permission before wearing and using pink whistles during games to show their support for breast cancer research. In June of 2011, another association, representing the referees who were put on two-year probation and restricted from 2011 and 2012 play-off game officiating as a result of using the pink whistles, filed suit against a state school athletic body which had upheld WOA’s actions.

C-Wilson said she was president of the WOA board when it originally targeted the pink-whistle refs, and has no regrets about the decision. “We did exactly the right thing,” she said.

Public Data Ferret is a news knowledge base program of the Seattle-based 501c3 public charity, Public Eye Northwest. Ferret In The News; Donate.

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