State Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn bills herself as a compassionate consumer champion, but many of her employees call her a tyrant.
The state auditor’s office is examining a 150-page whistleblower complaint that accuses Senn of bullying workers, shredding important documents and hiring unqualified friends.
Senn “wants employees who are totally at her mercy and will do exactly what she tells them to do,” the complaint says.
It also alleges that Senn is involved in a cover-up, concealing or destroying staff documents that could help health insurers in pending lawsuits against her office.
Senn’s labor relations are so frayed she is the only Democratic incumbent for statewide office not being backed by the state employees union this year.
Senn, who usually responds instantly to critics, deferred questions about the auditor’s investigation to her campaign chairman.
Robert Harkins said Tuesday Senn was unaware of the auditor’s investigation and couldn’t comment until she has had a chance to review it.
He said the auditor had “exonerated” Senn after examining prior whistleblower complaints about similar matters.
The recurring complaints come from a small group of critics who keep rehashing the same wild allegations, he said.
But Republican challenger Anthony Lowe calls the latest investigation further evidence that the feisty commissioner can’t get along with anyone, whether it’s insurance companies or her own workers.
“It’s gotten to the point the office is almost dysfunctional,” Lowe charged. “Voters need to know this is part of an ongoing pattern of mismanagement from this commissioner that must end.”
The most recent and most in-depth whistleblower report filed against Senn this year fits into a larger pattern of agency strife.
“There seems to be a lot of unrest in that office,” said state Auditor Brian Sonntag. In prior audits, Sonntag found no criminal wrongdoing in Senn’s office, but did find record-keeping problems.
He said the current voluminous complaint includes copies of e-mail messages and more. “There’s an awful lot of detail to wade through.”
A summary of the complaint, obtained by The Spokesman-Review, gives the auditor a meticulous roadmap about who to question in regard to the alleged improprieties.
It claims Senn’s close aides are trying to stop employees from telling the truth to the auditor’s office. It also accuses her of hiding or possibly shredding documents relevant to five lawsuits filed by insurance companies. The suits resulted from Senn’s refusal to grant insurance companies major rate hikes on individual policy holders last year. The whistleblower complaint claims Senn is trying to get rid of internal office reports that suggest the requested rate increases were justified.
“Why is shredding going on at all?” asks the complaint. “Why are there now three shredders in this agency? … If you have nothing to hide there is no reason to shred.”
The complaint continues: “She is plainly and simply breaking the law and she knows it. That is why it is so important to her to destroy any documents that show her technical staff have reviewed and approved rate increase requests.”
Senn aides say these are old, bogus allegations.
An auditor’s investigation into a similar shredding allegation last spring concluded that no criminal activity had taken place, but that complaint was not as detailed as the one now under review.
Campaign manager Harkins said the recurring complaints about the state’s first woman commissioner reflect the dramatic changes Senn brought to the previously sleepy commissioner’s office.
“Clearly, as she came into office and turned the focus to a consumer-oriented agency there were people who objected to that on staff,” he said. “It’s a fairly small group of people.”
But union officials say they have had as many as 30 Senn employees together to air their gripes about her management style. The agency employs about 150 people.
“Check out the number of staff (Senn) has fired,” urges the complaint. She “has fired, or driven out over 30 people - that’s 20 percent of the staff. Fear of job loss is very real for employees in this agency.”
The complaint also accuses Senn and her chief of staff of verbally abusing employees. “Both yell at, swear at, and generally degrade and humiliate staff.”
Senn’s reputation as an unreasonable boss cost her the support of the state workers union in her re-election bid this year.
“Part of the major problem is that she doesn’t have people around her who know much about labor relations,” said Greg Devereux, executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees.
“The educational process has been incredibly rocky. And ultimately the responsibility stops at her desk.”
Devereux said Senn’s office has an inordinate number of complaints.
“We just haven’t had these problems with the auditor’s office, or the treasurer or the attorney general or the secretary of state,” he said.
Despite lacking the endorsement of her employees’ union, Senn has gathered plenty of labor support across the state, Harkins said.
Senn’s campaign aide noted the state union hasn’t backed Lowe either, and remains neutral on the race. He also said some of the gripes from union members have been as petty as complaining about not getting a desk with a view.
Devereux said the union never heard complaints from the same office during the 16-year reign of Dick Marquardt, Senn’s predecessor. “We never got a single call.”
Devereux summed up Senn’s management style: “She sets a goal and goes in that direction and essentially it’s damn the torpedoes, and then afterwards she has to consider the consequences of her actions.”
Sonntag said some of the whistleblower allegations may be investigated by other agencies, but he declined to be more specific. He also said he doesn’t expect to reach any conclusions on the charges before the Nov. 5 election.
“Political timing has absolutely nothing to do with it,” he said, anticipating the charge. “Either way it’s a no-win situation. If we find something, we’re playing politics. If we don’t, we’re covering up.”
A Sonntag aide said the auditor intends to announce his plans on how to handle the Senn probe later this week.
Lowe said he won’t object if Sonntag doesn’t reach a verdict before the election.
“I tend to believe that Sonntag is going to do the best job he can sorting this out. It is a serious matter, and I don’t think we should put any political pressure on him to resolve this issue any faster than he would have normally.”
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