Copyright 1997, The Spokesman-Review
Top officials at Geiger Corrections Center covered up a scheme to falsely accuse a worker fired for misconduct in 1992, an investigator hired by Spokane County says.
The conspiracy included urging an inmate to remain silent about information that could have cleared the corrections officer and allowing a doctored videotape to be used against her, Seattle attorney Thao Tiedt concludes.
She levels her most serious accusations against county corrections director Gary Oberg and Kay Walter, formerly of Geiger but now superintendent of the state’s Airway Heights prison. Tiedt makes less serious accusations against Jim Lindow, the county’s chief administrative officer, Geiger administrator Mike Pannek and some others.
Lindow, Oberg and Pannek are among the county’s most respected employees, as was Walter before she moved to the state Department of Corrections.
Oberg passed a lie-detector test in August, said his attorney, Terry Lackey, whose bills are paid by the county.
During that test, he denied that any of the allegations against him are true, Lackey said.
Walter, who left Geiger in January 1993, denied doing anything improper. Lindow and Pannek refused to comment on the advice of county attorneys.
The accusations are contained in a five-page summary of Tiedt’s report, which cost the county $49,000. Tiedt completed her investigation at least eight months ago. No one she accuses has been disciplined.
County officials are conducting a follow-up investigation to determine the credibility of Tiedt’s witnesses, said county attorney Martin Muench.
Those witnesses include a number of Geiger employees and at least one sheriff’s deputy. They also include two former Geiger inmates who provided key information.
Commissioner John Roskelley said a second investigation is necessary because “the report by Thao seemed to be biased. We noticed an attitude that was very obvious when she was with us. In that regard, we felt we had to take a second look at it.”
Tiedt, who was King County’s female attorney of the year in 1995 and is a partner in a 100-year-old law firm, refused to comment. The county hired her on the advice of officials at the Washington Counties Risk Pool, the insurance pool for self-insured counties, who had heard her speak at seminars on employee law.
“They were very high on her,” said Claude Cox, county safety-loss manager.
County officials wouldn’t release Tiedt’s report, which was prompted by a whistleblower complaint from an unidentified county employee. The Spokesman-Review received a summary copy from a source identified only as “Concerned.”
Tiedt concluded that Oberg, Walter and Lindow, who was Geiger’s administrator at the time, viewed a videotape used as evidence against corrections officer Sandra “Sunny” Pilkington and “should have known” it was “a false depiction of the facts.”
Oberg “abused his power” and Walter “participated in the cover-up of the truth,” Tiedt wrote.
The alleged cover-up began in 1992 when Pilkington was fired for having inappropriate contact with inmate Walter Zachman.
Geiger van driver Michael Horstman accused her of hugging Zachman on one occasion and being in a darkened room with him on another.
After her firing, Horstman was promoted to corrections officer and given Pilkington’s badge number.
Pilkington appealed her dismissal to an arbitrator.
The arbitrator, Carlton Snow, found that Horstman had strong reason to lie. On one occasion, Pilkington told her supervisors that Horstman had been drinking on the job.
Snow gave Pilkington back her job.
County officials acknowledged at Pilkington’s union arbitration hearing that a key piece of evidence against her - a videotape showing one of the rooms where Horstman said he caught Pilkington and Zachman together - had been doctored.
Pilkington claimed she took the inmate to get tools and was looking for a light switch in the center of the darkened room.
In the video that Horstman helped make, the lights turn on with the flick of a switch near the entrance. But Geiger employees said the switch was never connected to an indoor light.
After the arbitration hearing, Horstman and Edwin Rosario, another employee who helped make the tape, were placed on paid leave so Pannek could investigate whether Pilkington had been wronged.
“Mr. Pannek did what I can only conclude was a cursory investigation” before reinstating the pair, Tiedt wrote.
“At best, the Geiger administration has attempted to sweep the whole issue regarding the false evidence under the rug. At worst, there has been a concerted effort to keep this matter hidden.”
Tiedt also wrote that Geiger officials knew Horstman was accompanied by another inmate when he claimed to have caught Pilkington in the room. That inmate was ready to testify that Pilkington did nothing wrong, Tiedt wrote. She concluded that Oberg and Walter told that witness, identified in the summary as Inmate A, to “forget” what he saw.
Walter denied ever speaking to any inmate about the case.
“I don’t even know who Inmate A is,” she said.
After Pannek’s internal investigation, Pilkington asked the sheriff’s office to investigate whether co-workers had conspired against her and fabricated evidence to get her fired.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Ethridge said he took on the case reluctantly, but soon accepted her theory.
“What county employees did to this woman, a fellow employee, is despicable,” said Ethridge, who finds Tiedt’s report “completely credible.”
Ethridge said the doctoring of the videotape “was blatant” and obvious to anyone who watched it. Tiedt wrote that Oberg and Lindow were among those who saw the video before the arbitration hearing.
Ethridge’s investigation led to evidence tampering charges against Rosario and Horstman.
The charge against Rosario was dropped because the prosecutor missed a court date. A judge threw out the charge against Horstman because an arbitration hearing isn’t a court hearing so the tape didn’t meet the legal definition of evidence.
Back on the job, Pilkington filed a federal lawsuit that’s scheduled to go to court next year. It names many of the same people mentioned in Tiedt’s report, all of whom have filed counterclaims charging that Pilkington’s lawsuit is false, malicious and frivolous.
So far, the county has spent nearly $69,000 defending itself and its employees against the suit.
Pilkington, who injured her back at Geiger and hasn’t worked for about a year, said one of the questions the county’s attorney asked during a deposition was whether she had sex with any county officials and whether she and her husband had ever separated. She believes that’s a reference to a rumor that Ethridge doggedly pursued the case only because he and Pilkington are having an affair.
Ethridge and Pilkington deny the rumor.
“I’ve met Sunny Pilkington three times and all three times with other people present,” he said. “They accuse her of having sex with an inmate. That doesn’t work, so (they) accuse her of having sex with the cop investigating the case.”
Ethridge declined to confirm or deny that he’s the whistleblower who launched Tiedt’s investigation.
County attorney Muench said the county’s follow-up investigation was slowed because federal corrections officials wouldn’t let the county interview one witness, a federal inmate no longer at Geiger. That inmate was released Oct. 8, he said.
No one was placed on leave during the review, Muench said, because the alleged incidents occurred so long ago that there’s little risk that anyone will attempt to hamper the investigation.
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