The Town of Yacolt recently filed a lawsuit in Clark County Superior Court against the Washington State Auditor’s Office and several employees of the auditor’s office, claiming that town officials and the town itself were defamed by an accountability audit released in 2011.
The accountability audit was conducted from Jan. 1, 2008-Dec. 31, 2009.
In addition to the Town of Yacolt, other claimants listed on the lawsuit include Yacolt Public Works Director Pete Roberts and former Yacolt Mayor Joe Warren. According to the lawsuit, “the defendants failed to take reasonable or proper steps to ascertain the accuracy of their statements” that claim town officials violated the state’s competitive bidding law and unethically purchased excavation equipment from a town employee, Roberts.
In the audit, the auditor’s office stated that the town purchased equipment and materials from Roberts for $13,980, which exceeded the formal bid threshold established in state law. The audit claims that the transaction “was at the public works director’s direction and included an excavator, water tank, generator, socket set, leather gloves, a shop broom, refrigerator, microwave and writing pads...”
According to the lawsuit, Roberts offered to allow the Town of Yacolt to purchase an excavator that he believed would be useful to the town in the fall of 2008, before he was the public works director. At that time, that position was still held by Paul Tester.
In the fall of 2008, Roberts spoke with then-Mayor Warren about the town purchasing the excavator, and the lawsuit states that Warren considered the value of the equipment, fair market value of the excavator, the financial impact of the purchase on the town’s budget and what procedural steps might be necessary in making such a purchase to satisfy state law. Warren and the town had made a similar purchase in February 2008 of a used Ford F250 pickup truck, which was for sale by a private party. Before purchasing that pickup truck, Warren sought legal advice for the proposed purchase from an attorney working for the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington.
According to the lawsuit, the attorney who Warren spoke with did not suggest that the town advertise for competitive bids, as the truck was used and state requirements could be satisfied by treating the transaction as a purchase of used equipment under RCW 39.04.280. This law describes a set of exceptions to state competitive bidding requirements, which are appropriate in certain situations involving the purchase of used equipment by a municipality.
In March 2008, the town purchased the used pickup for roughly $12,000 for the Public Works Department. This purchase did not receive any negative feedback from the auditor’s office. When the opportunity to purchase the used excavator from Roberts came up in the fall of 2008, Warren realized that the circumstances of the proposed excavator purchase were similar to those surrounding the used Ford pickup truck, and he concluded that the town could properly adopt the same procedure used to purchase the truck to satisfy state procurement law for the purchase of the used excavator, assuming the town council members chose to pursue the purchase.
After going through the steps of budget, assessing value, council member votes, etc., the town purchased the excavator from Roberts for the amount of $13,980. Throughout 2008-2009, Roberts also donated numerous items to the town, including writing pads, a water tank, generator, socket set, leather gloves, a shop broom, refrigerator and microwave. According to the lawsuit, these items were donated by Roberts and he did not receive any money from the town for them. The lawsuit states that Tester, who was still the public works director while this was all going on, estimated that the town had received as much as $30,000 worth of tools and equipment from Roberts, though the town only paid Roberts $13,980 for the excavator.
According to the lawsuit, statements made by the auditor’s office about the procedure of purchasing the excavator were false. The lawsuit claims that a statement made in the audit report that implies that a management level employee of the town sold personal equipment, tools, supplies and materials to the town is false; the statement that the town purchased these things from the public works director is false (as Roberts wasn’t in that position at that time); a statement that the town was “directed’ by an employee to purchase the excavator was false; and statements regarding the town not following proper competitive bidding law in the state were false. The lawsuit claims numerous other statements made by the auditor’s office regarding their 2008-2009 audit were also false.
According to the lawsuit, “the repeated publication of inflammatory statements further tarnished the reputations of the town and its agents, and damaged public trust in the practices and intentions of Yacolt’s government officials. The defamatory statements published by the defendants exposed the plaintiffs to distrust, hatred, contempt, ridicule, scorn, obloquy or shame, which deprived the plaintiffs of the benefit of public confidence and/or social intercourse, for which the plaintiffs are entitled to compensation in the form of substantial presumed damages in amounts to be determined at trial.”
The town is asking for a retraction of the audit and monetary damages.
According to information put out to the citizens of Yacolt by Mayor Jeff Carothers, “the state has not denied the errors described by Yacolt, and instead cites ‘absolute immunity for acts, publications and oral pronouncements by a state official.’”
In the same information, Carothers listed reasons for the lawsuit, including that “the citizens of Yacolt have the right to insist upon government accountability, the auditor’s office should recognize and correct its failures like other government agencies; leaders elected by the citizens of Yacolt should be free to serve the community without fear that the auditor’s office will publish defamatory reports that put their lawful work and good intentions in false light; and the town is bearing the cost of the auditor’s mistakes, that’s not fair to Yacolt’s citizens, the town’s leaders have a responsibility to try to recover those losses.”
The auditor’s office has not yet responded to the lawsuit. They have until the end of the month to respond.