U.S. District Judge Alan McDonald is being sued by his former court reporter who claims he retaliated against her after she reported he altered court documents and used government employees in his private business.
The charges were filed Feb. 28 by Kathryn Blankenship of Yakima, who worked for McDonald for nearly a decade.
The case was brought by two Seattle law firms after extensive debate about the risks of challenging the authority of a federal judge.
McDonald altered transcripts of court proceedings, forced federal employees in Yakima to work for his private real estate business on court time, and passed “racist” and “sexual” notes to his law clerk about people appearing in his courtroom, according to the federal lawsuit.
He also ordered Blankenship, 54, to forge and notarize “improper signatures” on private and personal documents, and provide false information in a government audit of court expenses, the lawsuit claims.
McDonald did not respond Thursday to a request for comment on the charges, referring calls to James Larsen, the federal court clerk in Spokane.
Larsen also is named in the complaint for his alleged role in firing Blankenship from her court reporter position, which she held from December 1985 to March 1995.
Larsen blamed the lawsuit on sour grapes, saying Blankenship was upset after being fired due to poor work performance.
“In 1994, the judges of this court determined that due to continued performance difficulties and dissatisfaction with her work in the Yakima court, she would be transferred back to Spokane where she was previously employed,” Larsen said in a prepared statement.
“Based on her refusal to accept the transfer and on her performance difficulties, she was terminated by the judges of this court. She has brought this lawsuit rather than accept the transfer back to Spokane,” he said.
Her complaint paints a very different picture of her career with McDonald, a President Reagan appointee who was confirmed as a federal judge in 1985.
Last December, he went on senior status, allowing him to retain some cases while still drawing his full $133,600-a-year salary.
Among the cases he’s chosen to keep are the Spokane Gypsy civil rights case and the Hanford downwinder ligitation, the largest toxic tort case in Eastern Washington.
Blankenship was assigned to McDonald when he joined U.S. District Court in Spokane, and went with him when he moved to Yakima in 1990.
She didn’t willingly report problems she’d observed in McDonald’s Yakima courtroom, according to her lawsuit.
In July 1994, she was subpoenaed to testify in an employment discrimination case involving another Yakima court employee, Christine Mearns.
Blankenship feared “working conditions would become worse” in Yakima if she testified. But U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush, who presided over the closed employment discrimination hearing, assured her she’d be protected, the suit says.
She testified, citing a series of problems, including “abuse of personnel rules, use of court facilities for private business, and regular and excessive profanity … (and) … sexist and racist jokes and comments.”
In her testimony, she said McDonald regularly “edited, deleted words and changed the reports” of court proceedings and would not allow her to certify them “as amended.”
McDonald also ordered her and others to sign and notarize “improper signatures” on private and personal documents, Blankenship said.
He also routinely required court employees to do a “substantial amount of secretarial and other work on his private business or real estate enterprises while at the federal courthouse, and on court time and court salary.”
Within days of her testimony, McDonald confronted and threatened her, according to the lawsuit.
“You serve at my pleasure and you aren’t pleasuring me any more,” he allegedly said.
The federal court gave Mearns an undisclosed cash settlement and cleared her personnel file of negative comments.
But McDonald told Blankenship she couldn’t keep her job in Yakima, and would have to transfer back to Spokane, according to the lawsuit.
Blankenship refused to move, and in November 1994, Larsen scheduled a performance review - the first she’d had in nearly a decade, according to her suit.
The same month, she was diagnosed with “major depression and anxiety” in a federal employee concerns program, and went on sick leave, according to the complaint.
In February 1995, McDonald, Quackenbush and the two other Spokane federal judges terminated her, effective in March.
Blankenship’s not the first person to accuse McDonald of altering transcripts. Yakima attorney Jay Sandlin made a similar charge in a May 1989 civil trial before McDonald.
Sandlin accused McDonald of ordering a clerk to remove from the hearing record McDonald’s statement about the credibility of a witness with whom McDonald was personally acquainted.
McDonald then moved to seek Sandlin’s permanent disbarment. The Washington Supreme Court eventually ruled 9-0 in Sandlin’s favor.
The flap led to an investigation by the FBI’s Public Integrity Section, which concluded the evidence of altering the court record was inconclusive.
Blankenship’s attorneys, Victoria Vreeland and C. Scott Penner, are seeking compensatory and punitive damages from McDonald and Larsen.
They have also filed a federal tort claim against the U.S. District Court, seeking $2 million in damages.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.