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George Johnson awarded $105K in settlement; another $145K for attorney

PRESS RELEASE: Former County Information Services Manager George Johnson and the Washington Counties Risk Pool have reached settlement terms on Johnson’s lawsuit alleging that his August 23 dismissal from the County was retaliatory. Johnson receives $105,000 and his attorney, Jack Sheridan of Seattle receives $145,000 in legal fees.

"We wanted to take this to court," said County Administrator Pete Rose. "We have ample evidence that Mr. Johnson’s dismissal was based solely on his performance and on budget considerations. Our IS department continues to perform well with fewer people and at a lower cost."

Rose said the County did not regard Mr. Johnson as a whistle blower. He said the retaliation claim was based on a purchasing issue that Johnson never brought to the attention of his supervisor or the County Administrator. Further the County filed documents with the court showing that the County Administration was in the process of terminating Johnson prior to the time it even became aware of that issue.

The purchasing issue was brought to the Administrator’s attention by another department. He turned the matter over to the County Prosecutor who, with the Administrator's encouragement, also contacted the State Auditor’s Office.

“This settlement was made by the Risk Pool strictly for economic reasons. We had no option, short of hiring our own attorneys and spending potentially hundreds of thousands of the taxpayers' dollars on legal fees." Rose said.

Even though the lawsuit was settled prior to any court hearing on the merits of the case, the Counties Risk Pool - the insurance consortium which represents counties in legal actions such as this - reportedly amassed more than $180,000 in legal costs. San Juan County's share of the legal costs for this case is $20,000. The settlement itself is paid with Risk Pool funds.

Records in Johnson case released

San Juan County Prosecutor's office released the records former employee argued were not subject to Washington state's Open Public Records Act after a request was made by the media. George Johnson took his case all the way to the state Supreme Court which declined to review the case. The records are part of his lawsuit against the county which pertains to the termination of his employment as Information Services Manager.

A trial date on the claim for damages has been set for April 2012.

Johnson case - Executive deliberative document - 355 KB

Memo - 162 KB

Johnson case - Letter to Human Resources - 155 KB

Johnson case -Notes - 67 KB

Johnson case - George Johnson Notes - 132 KB

Johnson Case - Superior Court ruling -256

Johnson Case - Court of Appeals - 246 KB

Johnson case - Supreme Court review denial - 323 KB

Supreme Court denies review of Johnson's request for injunction

Washington State Supreme Court denied a request by former San Juan County employee George Johnson to review a denial by Skagit County Superior Court of a preliminary injunction to stop the release of certain records under a Public Records Request.

Johnson was the director of the county's Information Services Department before being terminated from the position when the department was merged into the Public Works Department in August 2010.

The 17 pages of records in question are the exit memorandum, notes related to his termination and two emails.

The entire court ruling is posted here.

Additional steps are required before the papers can be released. The Supreme Court ruling must become final though the issuance of a mandate. Provided no request for reconsideration is made, the mandate follows the Ruling Denying Review by 30 days. The next step requires the court of appeals to lift the temporary "stay" it placed on its order.

County denies whistleblower retaliation claim by ex-employee

County Risk Manager David Kelly's decision to fire George Johnson from his position as San Juan County's Information Services Manager was made on July 26, 2010 according to county documents. Johnson has filed a whistleblower retaliation claim against the county asking for damages of up to $1 million. He believes his dismissal was the result of an August 10, 2010 email reply he sent to the deputy auditor.

As an "at will" employee, Johnson's employment with the county could have been terminated at any time without cause.

In response to his tort claim, county personnel staff responded in a letter to Johnson detailing the reasons he was fired and why the county was denying the claim.

"The County documented numerous instances of unsatisfactory performance by you in 2009 and 2010...Ms. Cunningham (former risk manager Adina Cunningham) received various complaints regarding the level of service provided by the Information Services Department during your tenure, your management of the Department, and the way that you communicated with and treated employees in other departments...These problems were persistent and pervasive and were never remedied by you."

The county Council's budget subcommittee considered reorganizing Information Services early in 2010. Public Works Director Jon Shannon drafted a report showing information technology services could be more cost effectively delivered through Public Works.

Kelly met with department heads and "they reported to him that you were very difficult to work with and stated they did not trust your management of the Information Services Department Staff" according to the letter.

Administrator Pete Rose met with Kelly on July 26, 2010. "Having received negative feedback from department heads, having reviewed Ms. Cunningham's recommendations, having considered the need for reorganization and further having reviewed your personnel file, Mr. Kelly recommended to Mr. Rose that you be terminated." Rose agreed and the decision was made.

Because of furlough days for some of the county staff involved, a desire to wait until after the fair and the need to finalize logistical arrangements, Johnson was not informed of his dismissal until August 23, 2010.

As is standard practice with jobs involving computer networks and infrastructure, when a person is let go everything is choreographed. All passwords are changed, the person is not given any prior notice and is escorted immediately from the building. This was done with Johnson.

He received 30 days pay in lieu of 30 days notice. In his claim, Johnson calculates employment ending September 23, 2010.

While the county can fire an "at will" employee without cause, there is a whistleblower exception. Johnson is claiming that exception applies to him.

Under state law, every county must have procedures for whistleblowers. In San Juan County, information about alleged improper governmental action is to be reported to the prosecutor or the risk manager. There are clear whistleblower procedures spelled out in county code and state law. Johnson did not follow any of them.

What he did was send an email in response to questions from the deputy auditor about computer equipment purchases. San Juan County Auditor Milene Henley was copied on the email. Henley and Johnson are married to each other.

Between 2007 and 2010, $70,000 of computer equipment for the Public Works Department was purchased through Craigslist. A county employee, who buys equipment for his own computer business through Craigslist, found equipment the Public Works Information Services needed and purchased it. Public Works then bought it from his business.

Johnson wrote in his email, "You didn't hear it from me of course but if I were the State Auditor, I'd investigate very carefully every invoice we paid to... Of course all of this may be completely above board - it's just that these items caught my eye, partly because the amounts are fairly large and partly because the vendor is both a local sole proprietorship and an employee of Public Works."

In his tort claim, Johnson states the day he sent the email, "Kelly, (as my supervisor) told me to 'stop doing any research on this' and 'keep it quiet', saying he had heard about it from the Auditor."

In his statement, Johnson says he complied believing he had brought the situation to light and had done all he needed to do.

The next day Henley asked Prosecutor Randy Gaylord for his opinion on the legality of the purchases.

Gaylord said in an interview December 21, 2010, "No further transactions are being made in this way. The intentions were to get the best price. The procedures were problemmatic. There is nothing to indicate fraud, nothing to indicate improper payment. No one profited unfairly. The transactions are concluded. There is nothing to undo or void."

According to Gaylord, the county denied Johnson's claim on the basis the decision to fire him was made on July 26, 2010. Gaylord said, " We will vigorously defend our position in the case."

If Johnson decides to pursue the claim, the next step is to request a hearing. The county would then ask the state office of administrative hearings for an adjudicative proceeding before an administrative law judge.

Chapter 42.41 RCW Local government whistleblower protection

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