September 21, 2008 in City

Debate on Harris hire, layoff goes on

Son of former county commissioner has history of legal problems, bankruptcy
By The Spokesman-Review
 

When the son of a powerful, three-term Spokane County commissioner was hired by the county three years ago, officials touted his business experience.

But now, as they face allegations of wrongdoing from former Commissioner Phil Harris’ son, Steve Harris, in complaints his union filed with a state employment commission following his layoff earlier this year, county attorneys have acknowledged that Phil Harris played politics with his son’s job before his failed 2006 re-election bid.

Harris “in effect tabled discussions concerning salary increases for his son until the conclusion of the election since he (Phil Harris) did not want any additional adverse media coverage concerning the county’s employment of his three sons,” according to the county’s official response to one of Steve Harris’ complaints filed with the state.

Despite a questionable employment record, a short stint in jail in the 1980s and a recent bankruptcy, Steve Harris was hired by the county for a job aimed at boosting the economy and assisting development.

County leaders say they were unaware of Harris’ problems with the law and his bankruptcy until questioned by The Spokesman-Review this summer, rekindling questions about the process that led to his hiring.

The controversy surrounding Steve Harris’ recent dismissal has become almost as sharp as his hiring, forcing county leaders, who once defended their 2005 hiring against charges of nepotism, into instead making the case for Steve Harris’ layoff.

When asked three years ago about his suitability for the job, county administrators said Harris was the best choice for the open “development assistance coordinator” position by pointing to Harris’ work in sales, including his ownership of a battery business in California.

But federal bankruptcy court records in California indicate that Harris’ efforts running the battery business failed. He filed for bankruptcy at the end of 2004 and owed creditors about $1 million. He also filed for bankruptcy in 1979 and 1991.

In a brief interview last month, Steve Harris declined to discuss the most recent bankruptcy or other legal issues in the 1980s.

“That’s a lot of my personal life,” Harris said. “It has nothing to do with my hiring by Spokane County.”

Attempts to reach Phil Harris last month and last week were unsuccessful.

The attorney representing Harris’ union, Rich Mount, said Harris’ history prior to being hired is irrelevant to his treatment by the county.

“As far as I know, no one’s ever called into question his performance while he worked with the county,” said Mount, of the Public Works Guild.

Phillip Steven Harris, who went by Steve while working at the county and who used the middle name “Stephen” on his county application, was laid off in June in the second notice of layoffs of building and planning employees. The Public Works Guild has accused the county of dismissing Harris in retaliation for filing grievances related to his compensation and a whistleblower complaint alleging financial mismanagement by county administrators, according to documents filed with the county and state. The guild has filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint with the state Public Employment Relations Commission and is demanding his job back.

In July, an investigation by Thomas McLane, an attorney hired by the county to examine the case, concluded that Harris’ layoff was “untainted by retaliation.”

Harris’ retaliation claim remains under investigation by the state Public Employment Relations Commission.

Harris’ accusation against the county is not the first time he has taken a fight with a former employer to the legal arena.

In 1984, Automotive Electric in Spokane accused Harris of charging jewelry and other items to the company without permission, according to a company memo in court records. The owners also told police Harris wrongfully accepted insurance money involving a collision with a company car and stole six batteries, court documents say.

Harris denied the allegations and sued the company and its owners, Robert and Thomas Wilkening, for more than $3 million in 1985 for libel and slander. A jury ruled in favor of the Wilkenings in a weeklong trial in 1987 and awarded the Wilkenings $733 on their counterclaim that alleged Harris made unauthorized purchases using company accounts, according to court records.

In a deposition, Steve Harris alleged that the Wilkenings and his probation officer were part of a conspiracy to deny his freedom. At the time of the civil case, Steve Harris’ attorney argued that Harris had permission to use company credit.

Harris’ dispute with Automotive Electric started two years after he pleaded guilty to second-degree theft when he admitted to stealing from an earlier employer in Yakima County, according to court documents. In 1985, after serving probation for the felony, he was allowed to change his plea and a judge expunged the charge from his record.

In his statement pleading guilty in the Yakima case, Harris wrote that in January 1982, he “misrepresented myself as a part owner of Sonitrol, my employer, and obtained goods and services” from a rental company and travel agency “by charging these things to my employer without permission.”

He was sentenced to 20 days in jail and three years probation and was required to pay $1,468 in restitution. The judge stipulated that if Harris completed probation, he could withdraw his guilty plea and the court could dismiss the case – actions that took place in 1985.

Soon after pleading guilty to theft in Yakima County, Harris was charged with grand theft in Clearwater County, Idaho. According to court documents, Harris was accused of stealing money from the Konkolville Steak House in Orofino while working for a safe company. Harris pleaded guilty and a judge withheld final judgment, placed Harris on probation and ordered him to pay the steak house $850 in restitution, according to court documents.

In a deposition in the civil case, Harris testified that the Orofino theft occurred during a sales call he made while employed by Allied Safe and Vault.

“I just removed some money from a guy’s office in Orofino, Idaho,” he said during the deposition.

Spokane County Human Resources Director Cathy Malzahn said Harris’ job application asked if he had been “convicted by a court of law” within the past seven years – well outside the range of the Yakima County or Orofino cases.

County commissioners didn’t vote on Harris’ selection. Still, before he hired Harris, Jim Manson, then building and planning director, advised commissioners Mark Richard and Todd Mielke that he was about to offer a job to the other commissioner’s son. Both Mielke and Richard told Manson in e-mail exchanges that they wouldn’t intervene.

“Fine by me,” Richard said.

Mielke responded that the hire was OK as long as relatives weren’t directly supervising relatives.

Richard said in a recent interview that he was unaware of Harris’ bankruptcy or previous employment problems.

“That would have been a red flag for me for sure,” Richard said.

Harris started to work in the building and planning section but later was transferred to economic development. When the director, Erik Skaggs, resigned in 2007, Harris was left as the only employee in the department until his recent layoff. Harris filed a grievance against the county last year, alleging that he was performing duties of the director without the higher pay.

Gerry Gemmill, the former county operations director who oversaw Harris after Skaggs left, said much of Harris’ time was spent working on the Geiger spur, a West Plains railroad line the county is rerouting.

“He had done what he was asked,” Gemmill said.

In November, Gemmill ordered Harris to stop driving a county-owned car to and from work. Harris later won a grievance on the issue after Malzahn ruled that Harris’ use of the car couldn’t be changed without negotiation.

Harris’ hire became a significant issue in the 2006 race for his father’s commission seat, which Phil Harris lost narrowly to Bonnie Mager, former director of the Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County. During Harris’ three terms in office, all three of his sons were hired by the county. After Mager left the neighborhood group to run against Harris, the alliance filed a public records lawsuit against the county, alleging that officials did not comply with a records request Mager submitted related to Harris’ hiring. As of last month, the county had paid $34,412 to a private law firm to defend itself. A Lincoln County judge sided with the county in May, and the suit was dismissed. The alliance filed an appeal in June, and the case is pending.

Before Mager filed her records request, she was provided a county seating chart drawn before Harris was hired that showed space listed for “Ron and Steve.” Ron Hand was hired for a similar job, and some employees said in depositions that the chart made it clear that Harris was chosen before he was interviewed.

Manson, who called Harris “a good worker,” said he was unaware of Harris’ California bankruptcy or the cases from Yakima County or Idaho. He said Harris was the consensus choice for the job among the administrators who interviewed candidates.

“He seemed to surface to the top,” he said.

Harris said the hiring was completed fairly.

“I went through the normal routine like everybody else does,” Harris said.

Mager, however, said Harris’ bankruptcy was so close to the time he was hired, it’s another sign that Steve Harris wasn’t vetted.

“I never held Steve Harris being hired against Steve Harris. He just wanted a job,” Mager said. “I held that more against his dad and Jim Manson and the folks who appeared to have made the decision prior to the posting and prior to the interview process.”

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442.


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