Three Spokane County clerks were forced from their jobs this year for falsifying documents in the auto licensing office.
State records show that their supervisor’s husband committed a similar violation. The supervisor was not disciplined.
The clerks were accused of entering false rural addresses into vehicle registration forms. That alleged deception allowed them, their friends or relatives to avoid the expense and hassle of car emissions tests.
In at least one case, an employee’s friend paid lower taxes than she would have by using her correct address, county officials said.
One of the three, Bonny Morris, pleaded guilty to one count of falsifying a document, a gross misdemeanor. County Auditor Bill Donahue, who operates the licensing office under a state contract, fired Morris in February.
Another employee, Rose Morris, no relation to Bonny Morris, resigned Sept. 6. Three months earlier, Donahue sent her a memo raising allegations and stating that she might be fired.
The third employee, Valdene Troyer, resigned on Sept. 19, after a union official told her she would be fired at the end of the day.
No criminal charges have been filed against Rose Morris or Valdene Troyer.
“The latter two, I felt sorry for because I think Bonny probably initiated most of the problems,” said the office supervisor, Ellen Marsh.
The former clerks contend they did nothing that Marsh hasn’t also done. State records show that her husband, Elroy Marsh, registered his pickup to a post office box in Loon Lake, even though the couple live in the Spokane Valley.
Marsh acknowledged that her husband violated state law. Elroy Marsh falsified the registration at another licensing office, not in the courthouse where Marsh works, records show. He did it because the 1983 Chevrolet pickup failed its emissions test, Marsh said.
“I was very upset when he told me,” Marsh said. “I was devastated. I just couldn’t believe it.”
Marsh said she told her husband to correct the address and get the emissions test, “or I’d turn him in.”
State records show that the truck passed an emissions test shortly after the address was corrected. Donahue said Marsh told him about the incident as soon as it happened.
The $12 emissions tests, which are required for thousands of cars registered in Spokane and its suburbs, are designed to cut carbon monoxide pollution. Spokane is one of seven cities nationwide where carbon monoxide is considered a serious problem by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
People whose cars or trucks spew too much pollution must spend at least $150 on repairs before the state will grant them a waiver.
It is illegal for drivers to register a vehicle outside the area where emissions tests are required if they live - even part-time - inside a test area, said Ken Gamble of the state Department of Ecology. The agency can fine violators $250, but usually drops a case as soon as the owner corrects the address and gets the car tested.
Gamble said his agency didn’t hear about Marsh’s truck until after the address had been corrected and the truck had passed emissions. By then, “it was a moot point,” so he didn’t investigate the matter.
Ellen Marsh led investigations that culminated with disciplinary action against the clerks.
Bonny Morris accuses Marsh of a vendetta stemming from a 1990 investigation in which Morris told police that more than $800 disappeared from Marsh’s cash register.
Police and state auditors never determined who took the money. But ever since, Marsh has been “out to get me,” Bonny Morris said.
Marsh denied that she treated Bonny Morris poorly, and said she didn’t know until recently which of her colleagues reported the missing money.
Bonny Morris, who is fighting her dismissal through union arbitration, does not deny that she and he husband registered several cars at a house they own in Stevens County. She acknowledges that her nephew, two married daughters, brother-in-law and sister-in-law also used the Stevens County address to register cars in 1994, 1995 and 1996.
Morris pleaded guilty to helping her daughter, Spokane resident Elizabeth Johnson, register a car at the Stevens County address. Morris said she did it because Johnson was abused as a child and fears her tormenter would find her if she used her real address.
Morris paid a $500 fine. A judge said she can return to District Court in a year to ask that the crime be removed from her record.
Other relatives who registered vehicles at the house “all lived there at some time,” said Morris.
The house “sleeps about 12 people,” added her husband, John Morris.
Bonny and John Morris contend they did nothing illegal by registering their own cars, trucks, snowmobiles, trailers and other vehicles at the Stevens County house. The couple said they spend more than half their time there, although Bonny Morris was registered to vote in Spokane County until November 1996.
Bonny Morris points to state Department of Licensing regulations, which contradict the Ecology Department regulations. The Licensing Department requires owners to register their vehicles wherever they get their mail, regardless of whether that’s inside or out of the boundary for emissions testing, said Eric Andersen of the licensing agency’s Olympia office.
The Morrises said they get most of their mail in Stevens County.
In 1994 and 1995, Rose Morris registered a close friend’s newly purchased cars to an address she knew was incorrect. By using that Pend Oreille County address, the friend avoided paying higher Spokane County sales taxes, Donahue wrote in a memo.
“It should have been brought to the attention of her supervisor,” Donahue said Friday.
But Rose Morris said her supervisor, Marsh, told staff that “we weren’t to be police.”
False addresses “are not our problem. It’s (the Department of Ecology’s) problem,” Rose Morris said she was told.
Rose Morris also said she wasn’t aware that it’s illegal to register a car at a false address.
“I knew it was against Department of Ecology policy but I did not know it was illegal,” she said.
On the last day of August 1996, as a favor to Troyer, Rose Morris changed the ZIP code on Troyer’s Volkswagen registration to one that didn’t require emissions testing.
Although her address still showed Colbert, a community where tests are required, the ZIP code was Fairfield, where tests aren’t required.
Troyer acknowledged asking Rose Morris to make the change, “and it was wrong.” She took the action, she said, because both her mother and brother were dying, and time was running out for an emissions test.
“It was just at a very bad time for me. I had so much going on in my life at that time,” she said.
Documents show Troyer got her car’s emissions tested, and corrected the ZIP code, the following month.
Troyer also handled several transactions for Bonny Morris’ relatives. Donahue said Troyer should have reported those violations.