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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Former Excelsior employee files wrongful termination suit out after raising concerns about political activities

The Excelsior Youth Center is situated along Indian Trail Road in North Spokane in this May 2017 photo. The ribbon-cutting of multimillion dollar addition to the facility was held in fall 2018, and one former employee raised concerns about the appearance of political favoritism during the event.   (JESSE TINSLEY)

The former development director of the Excelsior Wellness Center this week filed a $200,000 lawsuit against his former employer, alleging retaliation for alerting superiors about an event in fall 2018 attended by U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

Skyler Oberst filed the wrongful termination civil lawsuit Tuesday in Spokane Superior Court, naming Excelsior’s CEO Andrew Hill and Kitara Johnson, its chief development officer. Oberst alleges unprofessional conduct by Johnson in marketing for the nonprofit youth care center during his employment from December 2018 to August 2019, made worse after he informed the firm’s human resources director and Hill about concerns related to a ribbon-cutting news conference for the facility’s new in-patient facility, funded through a Washington state Commerce Department grant.

The congresswoman spoke at the event despite an ongoing political campaign to retain her seat, and her campaign logo appeared on materials distributed at the event, according to the lawsuit. Oberst, a former legislative assistant at Spokane City Hall, told his supervisors he was concerned the appearance and promotional materials would display favoritism for a candidate and threaten the nonprofit’s tax-exempt status.

“Nobody is above the law, we should all be holding each other accountable,” said Natasha Hill, the Spokane attorney representing Oberst. “Especially in organizations that are intended to benefit our community.”

Excelsior is exempted from paying certain taxes under a provision of federal tax law that prohibits the group from engaging in campaigning.

McMorris Rodgers’ office said it did not receive any promotional materials for the event ahead of time for review, and that the visit was organized as an official event by Congressional staff.

Johnson declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit, citing the advice of legal counsel. A longtime community activist and Air Force veteran, Johnson has appeared in campaign advertisements for McMorris Rodgers and frequently hosts the congresswoman’s town hall events held annually in Spokane. She has also sparked some controversy in Spokane over the past several weeks for organizing Black protest events in Riverfront Park attended by police.

Andrew Hill, the chief executive of Excelsior, said that promotional materials are approved by its development department, the division Oberst led when he was hired after the ribbon-cutting ceremony. He said that concerns about potential tax violations should be reported directly to the IRS.

“Excelsior is regulated by five external bodies and is nationally accredited,” Andrew Hill said.

Andrew Hill said all government officials who helped secure the grant to build the 32-bed addition to Excelsior were recognized during the ceremony. Speakers at the event included “everyone who could be scheduled,” he said.

Natasha Hill, attorney for Oberst, said her client followed proper procedure by reporting his concerns to superiors, who have a fiduciary duty to their organization to seek assistance from the IRS in such cases. She said previous attempts to resolve the conflict with Excelsior prior to the lawsuit were unsuccessful.

Andrew Hill said Excelsior would defend against the lawsuit.

Oberst said in the lawsuit he continued to try to perform his job during the summer of 2019 but was ignored by senior staff and shut out of executive meetings. Rather than remain in a job he could not perform and to demonstrate concern about what he saw as a lack of changes to ensure tax violations did not occur again, he resigned that August.

Natasha Hill said a wrongful termination lawsuit needed to prove that the departure was a “constructive dismissal,” a legal term that can apply when a person quits because working conditions have become intolerable. Oberst is claiming protection under a state law preventing retaliation against whistleblowers.

“He was being put in a position where he was no longer allowed to communicate to any of his supervisors and couldn’t even do any real work,” Natasha Hill said.

The lawsuit seeks damages of $200,000. According to its most recent IRS filings, Excelsior’s assets total about $3.6 million.

The case has not yet been assigned to a judge and no court hearings have been scheduled.