June 1, 1996 in Nation/World

Official Says Suspension Is Retribution County Hires Law Firm To Investigate Woman Who Filed Two Bias Complaints

By The Spokesman-Review

FOR THE RECORD: June 5, 1996 Clarification: Sharlen Campbell-Cooper was fired as a deputy prosecuting attorney for Spokane County on the recommendation of her boss, David Nehen, but he had left his post before her actual dismissal. A Saturday story implied otherwise.

For the last two months, Spokane County’s personnel and affirmative action manager has stayed home, suspended, while the county builds a case to fire her.

Catherine Harmon, 42, continues to draw her $55,000-a-year salary, though, while taxpayers are shelling out thousands more in legal fees for the county’s investigation.

An exact figure could not be obtained because the county’s chief civil attorney did not return telephone calls.

The county hired an outside law firm to investigate Harmon as early as six months ago to justify firing her for unethical and unprofessional conduct, according to county employees and documents.

Harmon claims her boss, Human Resources Director Ben Duncan, wants to fire her as retaliation for sexual discrimination claims she filed last year against the county. One of those is pending before the county and another before the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In both claims, Harmon alleges she was not promoted to the top human resources job because of her gender.

Duncan refused to discuss Harmon pending the outcome of the county’s investigation into an alleged conflict of interest she had.

He said he hopes to decide how to discipline her within two weeks.

“I feel awful for the taxpayers,” said Harmon, who was hired 3-1/2 years ago to oversee the county’s equal opportunity employment program.

“If I’ve done something wrong, they should have investigated it and either fired me or put me back to work,” she said. “But I haven’t done anything wrong so they can’t fire me.”

Duncan notified Harmon in an April 1 letter that she “brought discredit” upon herself and the county.

In February, Duncan accused Harmon of letting a deputy prosecuting attorney move in with her for two days at the same time Harmon was investigating the woman’s racial discrimination complaint.

Sharlen Campbell-Cooper, who says she was the first black county lawyer since the 1960s, claims she was disciplined and later fired because of her race.

Her boss, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney David Nehen, cited poor performance when firing her.

Campbell-Cooper, 36, spent a couple of nights with Harmon last Christmas during a time of marital strife. She has since reconciled with her husband.

She and Harmon have become close friends, but both said they barely knew each other when the visit occurred.

“I had prior experience working at a women’s shelter,” Harmon said. “I’d do it for anybody.”

Besides, Harmon said, she had already referred Campbell-Cooper’s case to another investigator, and she informed her boss, Duncan, within hours of Campbell-Cooper’s visit.

“I think she’s getting a raw deal,” said Campbell-Cooper, who now practices law part-time from her home.

Duncan also charged Harmon with insubordination.

She walked out of a scheduled April 1 meeting with him to discuss the conflict-of-interest charge, according to his letter.

Harmon said she suddenly became nauseated and left the office after telling Duncan she was sick.

The county hired the Spokane legal firm of Evans, Craven & Lackie to investigate Harmon. It assigned associate Amy Clemmons to the case, according to two county officials who were interviewed by her. The officials requested anonymity.

Telephone calls to Clemmons and Jim Emacio, the county’s chief civil lawyer, to discuss how much Clemons is being paid were not returned.

Harmon last year settled a sexual discrimination and harassment claim against a Northern California county where she worked in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

An investigation of Harmon’s first gender discrimination claim against Spokane County was determined to lack merit.

Harmon claimed she was passed over for a less-qualified colleague for the interim human resources director job.

Patricia Williams, a Spokane lawyer hired by the county to investigate Harmon’s first claim, found that she didn’t get the interim job because co-workers lacked confidence in her.

Harmon filed the second complaint when Duncan was hired instead of her to permanently replace longtime personnel chief Skip Wright.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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