A two-year-old whistle-blower investigation in the Spokane County assessor’s office is getting new attention.
Assessor Ralph Baker plans to say in a newspaper advertisement Friday that several recent KREM television reports about failure to appraise new construction from 2001 to 2004 “hurt our community by misrepresenting the true facts.”
Essentially, Baker says, he was blamed for a problem he inherited and fixed when he took office in January 2005 by appointment.
Also, Baker says two supervisors he appointed – chief appraisal supervisor Byron Hodgson and North Side appraisal supervisor Karen Reisenauer – were unfairly singled out for criticism in the KREM reports.
A county report released to The Spokesman-Review on Wednesday under a public disclosure request confirms some of the problems identified in former appraiser Debi Mason’s whistle-blower complaint.
However, the report says her allegations of fraud were unfounded.
On the advice of county attorneys, Baker declined to discuss details with KREM anchor Randy Shaw, but he broke his silence this week in a newspaper interview. Baker also released a draft of the advertisement, which he will pay for himself.
“To be honest, the problem was more widespread than alleged in the complaint,” Baker says in the draft.
Mason’s complaint focused on Reisenauer.
Reisenauer was an appraiser in the West Plains before Baker promoted her in 2005. Mason took over Reisenauer’s former territory when Mason was hired in November 2005.
Mason stated in her whistle-blower complaint three years later that she had found “countless” examples of new construction Reisenauer failed to bring onto the tax roll. No other territory “had a fraction of the problems mine does,” Mason wrote.
Reisenauer said Wednesday that she passed notes about new construction to her team leader “and what happened after that, I don’t know.” But failure to appraise new construction was a problem throughout the office, she said.
“I didn’t realize the extent of it until I was a supervisor,” she said.
Mason also accused Reisenauer of fraud for collecting wages and mileage for work she didn’t do. She also suggested that Reisenauer may have been working a second job on county time.
The subsequent county investigation concluded in May that both allegations were false.
County Human Resources Director Cathy Malzahn said she compared Reisenauer’s time sheets from both jobs and found no overlap.
Malzahn asked Hodgson to investigate Mason’s other complaints, and he reported that Reisenauer properly focused on reappraising existing properties in fall and winter – as required by state law – when she allegedly failed to report new construction.
Whether Reisenauer adequately passed along information about new construction so other appraisers could check it later remains in dispute. But everyone agrees that three knee surgeries and a pregnancy limited Reisenauer to standard drive-by reappraisals for extended periods.
Baker calls that a “valiant” performance; Mason sees bad policy.
In any event, Hodgson said in his investigative report, the shorthanded office commonly failed to appraise new construction at that time.
The assessor’s office was “grinding down to a catastrophic failure,” Hodgson wrote.
He said the state Department of Revenue ranked the Spokane County assessor’s office as the second-most poorly funded in the state in 1999.
Mason complained that Hodgson’s report “reads more like a defense case rather than an unbiased investigation of the facts.” An outside expert should have conducted the investigation, she said in a May statement and again Wednesday in an interview.
Mason’s whistle-blower complaint said she and other appraisers complained about Reisenauer’s performance in a May 2007 meeting with Hodgson. She said appraiser Vicki Horton – who is running against Baker – was one of three “close friends” of Reisenauer’s who didn’t attend the meeting with Hodgson.
“I decided to run against my boss because things aren’t running smoothly in the office,” Horton said in a KREM “Assessor’s Mess” report Friday. “I’m tired of the way the employees are being treated and tired of the way the taxpayers are being treated.”
Baker told The Spokesman-Review he thought Mason’s whistle-blower complaint may have been influenced by other employees’ unhappiness with his efforts to modernize and reform the office.
She stated in her complaint, however, that she “lost confidence” in Baker when he publicly accused his staff of trying to sabotage his 2006 election campaign by keeping properties off the tax roll.
Mason and Reisenauer agree there was no personal animosity between them.
“I can’t say she ever did anything wrong to me,” Mason said. “We got along just fine.”
She said she apologized to Reisenauer and Hodgson for filing the whistle-blower complaint and that they tried to put the incident behind them.
But Mason considered it “retaliation” when, two months after the whistle-blower report was finished, Baker transferred her to Reisenauer’s team.
Mason said she felt her “days were numbered,” and tendered her resignation in September 2009. She said she asked to withdraw it a day later, but Baker refused.
Baker described himself as “an agent for change” who has succeeded in getting the office caught up on its work despite the loss of 10 employees.
“You don’t do that without making some changes and holding some people accountable,” he said. “It causes controversy.”