April 14, 1996 in Nation/World

Fired State Inspector Gets County Job Cronyism Suspected After Friend Hires Man Ousted For Gross Misconduct, Negligence

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Copyright 1996, The Spokesman-Review

Spokane County now employs a safety inspector who was recently fired by Washington state for warning Deaconess Medical Center of a surprise inspection and then ignoring major violations there.

Terry Hentges was hired by a friend and a county manager, Claude Cox, whose wife, Linda Cox, is the Deaconess safety manager.

In firing Hentges, the state Department of Labor and Industries cited seven instances of gross misconduct and negligence.

One offense - giving advance notice of an inspection - is a criminal gross misdemeanor, but it’s not known whether the state plans to prosecute.

Hentges, 37, of the Spokane Valley, went to work for Claude Cox in the county safety/loss office on Jan. 30 at an annual salary of $30,127. His job is to investigate accidents, enforce safety policies and inspect work sites.

The position is scheduled to end July 31, although Hentges could be hired permanently.

He worked a dozen years as an industrial hygienist for the state and was paid $48,000 a year until his firing a few days before taking the county job.

Hentges denied all state charges but refused to elaborate, saying he is appealing his firing and considering a lawsuit against Labor and Industries.

“I love people (workers) and being a hygienist,” he said. “I’ve devoted my life to it.”

Claude Cox did not comment on Hentges’ hiring.

County Commissioner Steve Hasson, after being told of the hiring and circumstances, will investigate what he said appears to be a blatant case of cronyism. County policy states that jobs are given to the “most qualified applicants.”

If Cox hired an inspector with Hentges’ troubled work history, Hasson said, county employees and citizens could be put at risk.

“How do you safeguard the public from a person who’s been fired for misconduct? You don’t,” Hasson said.

“If Cox is going to do things that cut corners and pose liabilities and vulnerabilities to the public, then he should not be here,” Hasson said. “If he (Cox) is hiring his buddies who clearly don’t belong here, then he sets everybody up.”

Before being fired, Hentges admitted to state officials that he had applied for a county job as early as January 1994.

Hentges told Bob Clayton, a Deaconess worker who blew the whistle on hospital asbestos violations, that he was a personal friend of both Claude and Linda Cox.

Hentges told The Spokesman-Review he was a friend of Claude Cox but did not know Linda Cox was married to him until after the Deaconess inspection.

Telephone calls to Linda Cox were not returned.

As Deaconess safety manager, Linda Cox was the state’s chief contact during and after two inspections, the second of which confirmed widespread asbestos exposed in ceiling tiles and broken pipes.

In January 1995, Clayton, a hospital plant engineer, and other maintenance workers were briefed by superiors about asbestos-handling procedures.

Clayton said he and co-workers were shocked to learn that Deaconess had an asbestos problem in the first place. They later learned the torn material they had handled around pipes was cancer-causing asbestos.

The workers, led by Clayton, filed a complaint with the Department of Labor and Industries. They included photos and blueprints pinpointing the location of dangerously exposed asbestos.

Three days before Hentges arrived for what was supposed to be a surprise inspection, more than 100 asbestos warning labels showed up in the hospital’s mechanical areas. State law requires asbestos areas to be marked.

After his inspection, Hentges cited Deaconess for two minor violations - workers servicing 12-volt batteries were not given protective rubber gloves and eyewash - and levied no fines. He found no exposed asbestos.

“I do not think it’s a coincidence that Terry Hentges told me of his personal friendship with Claude and Linda Cox and then failed to cite obvious and overt safety and health violations,” said Clayton, the whistleblower.

Dissatisfied with the inspection, Clayton, a 53-year-old Coeur d’Alene resident, complained again to the state, which sent another inspector to the hospital in July.

The second inspector cited the hospital for knowingly exposing one employee to asbestos without giving him proper protective gear.

The worker, Keith Largent, was told to remove 600 square feet of ceiling tile that the hospital knew contained asbestos, but he was not certified to perform the job. The inspector also cited Deaconess for not monitoring Largent’s work area for asbestos particles and for not instructing him on proper safety procedures.

In all, the hospital was cited for eight asbestos violations, one of them “willful,” and fined $29,700.

Deaconess officials refused to comment, saying they are appealing the violations and fines.

Last October, Clayton filed another complaint with the state - this one against Hentges personally.

“I would strongly request that (he) be investigated for failure to perform the duties legally required of a state L&I; inspector and determine if criteria exist for a criminal prosecution of this person,” Clayton wrote Hentges’ boss.

“I would further recommend that past cases involving Mr. Hentges be reviewed to see if other workers and workplaces have been placed at risk by Mr. Hentges.”

Rich Ervin, Labor and Industries compliance manager for Eastern Washington and Hentges’ boss, declined to comment, saying it is a personnel matter still under review.

The Deaconess inspection was not the first time Hentges was accused of misconduct. Records obtained by The Spokesman-Review also assert wrongdoing during a January 1994 inspection at D&L; Foundry in Moses Lake.

In a letter notifying Hentges of his firing, Labor and Industries Regional Administrator Craig Hinnenkamp alleges Hentges engaged in:

Retaliation against a co-worker. In 1993, another Labor and Industries inspector reported Hentges for misusing a state vehicle. Hentges allegedly used it to drive his wife and two children around on personal business. During the D&L; Foundry inspection, Hentges told plant officials the other inspector was a “witch hunter” and the foundry “got screwed.” D&L; eventually paid the state $11,090 for nearly 50 violations, many dealing with unsafe lead and cadmium exposure.

Slanderous and disparaging remarks against a co-worker. During the same foundry inspection, Hentges told company officials that another inspector was “incompetent.”

Untruthful and harmful statements against Labor and Industries. Foundry officials quote Hentges as saying his agency was making D&L; a “scapegoat” and had it under a “magnifying glass.”

Disloyalty. Hentges encouraged the foundry to sue his own agency for negligence and even provided the name of an attorney.

Warning Deaconess about an inspection. Hentges was told in writing that giving advance notice of an inspection is a gross misdemeanor punishable by six months in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000. “Because of your personal friendship with Linda Cox, the Deaconess safety director, it is believed that you gave this notice,” the termination letter states.

Compromising a whistleblower’s confidentiality. Hentges admitted giving Deaconess administrators portions of Clayton’s complaint. “As a result, he (Clayton) was subjected to hostile treatment by his supervisor,” the letter states.

Lying about an inspection. Hentges told Clayton that he referred a life-threatening electrical violation to the city of Spokane and an unsafe metal shed near the helicopter landing pad to the Federal Aviation Administration. Both agencies said Hentges never contacted them. “Your false statements were an attempt to disguise and overshadow the safety complaint items which you chose to ignore.”

During a recent hearing about his firing, Hentges “categorically denied all allegations, but offered no additional explanation or rebuttal,” according to state records.

“The Department of Labor and Industries places trust in employees, such as yourself, to promote the goals and aspirations of this agency,” his boss wrote. “You have damaged this trust in a manner that I cannot ignore.”

Hentges beat out 14 other applicants for the county job. He has degrees from Spokane Falls Community College and Eastern Washington University. He also is a Spokane County reserve deputy.

He worked 12 years for the state, 18 months for Key Tronic Corp. in Spokane and nine months for Dawn Mining Co. in Ford, Wash.

Hentges and seven other applicants met the minimum requirements for the county safety officer job. Two other applicants were interviewed.

Six of the seven rejected applicants were contacted by The Spokesman-Review. All said the county did not notify them the job had been filled.

Hentges said he took the county job because of his desire to protect workers. He said he didn’t know his salary, but he added that he “could make more on unemployment.”

The maximum weekly unemployment paycheck is $350, but workers fired for misconduct are not eligible. The county pays Hentges $579 a week.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo Graphic: What is asbestos?


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