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Washington Supreme Court rules unanimously on Benton sheriff recall bid

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 6, 2020

By Kristin M. Kraemer Tri-City Herald

OLYMPIA – The Washington state Supreme Court ruled Friday that an effort to recall the Benton County sheriff can move forward on all eight alleged charges.

It gives a Benton County sheriff’s sergeant the go-ahead to start collecting signatures in a push to oust his boss from office.

The recall then would go to the voters in a special election.

The unanimous ruling signed by Chief Justice Debra Stephens found that allegations in the proposed recall, if true, are recallable offenses.

Sgt. Jason Erickson filed a recall petition nearly four months ago that accuses Sheriff Jerry Hatcher of criminal misconduct, tampering with physical evidence, discrimination, intimidation and retaliation.

Erickson now has six months to collect valid signatures from a number of voters equal to 25% of the votes cast in Hatcher’s last election.

That means signatures are needed from almost 14,000 Benton County voters. Signature gathering can begin on Monday, Nov. 9.

The Supreme Court justices did not go into detail with Friday’s order, saying an opinion would be released at a later date.

“It is apparent the Washington State Supreme Court can see, very simply, as to the vast amount of evidence against the sheriff,” lawyer Alan Harvey of Vancouver, Wash., told the Tri-City Herald. “It is clear they could see that he’s a criminal, and that is why he needs to be recalled.”

Harvey said his client, Erickson, was ecstatic upon hearing the news Friday.

Hatcher disputes allegations

Hatcher told the Herald the ruling was disappointing and that he can prove all eight allegations are false.

But he did not have that chance in court hearings, including at the Supreme Court where no testimony was heard, he said.

Recall cases are unusual in that “a person can make allegations with absolutely no proof and the court has to take that as fact,” Hatcher said.

In this case important facts have purposely and unethically been left out of the allegations, he said.

Now that the recall process appears likely to move forward, the sheriff said he would do his best to educate the community on the facts of the case.

People are welcome to call him at the sheriff’s office to discuss the matter, he said.

Hatcher had appealed to the state Supreme Court to overturn an August decision by Judge M. Scott Wolfram of Walla Walla County Superior Court. Wolfram said that Erickson’s petition was legally and factually sufficient to proceed toward gathering signatures for a special election.

The judge approved the entire proposed ballot synopsis prepared by Benton County prosecutors, which includes charges of misfeasance, malfeasance and violations of Hatcher’s oath of office.

The high court in September agreed to an accelerated review of the case by all nine justices. The review was set for Thursday behind closed doors in Olympia.

Erickson and his attorney asked for the quick turnaround, citing state law dealing with recall efforts of elected public servants.

Erickson – who self-demoted from lieutenant last February because of concerns about Hatcher’s leadership – is backed by nearly the entire membership of the Benton County Deputy Sheriff’s Guild, along with the Washington State Fraternal Order of Police.

Recall allegations

Hatcher has been sheriff since May 2017 when he was picked to take over the position after the resignation of Steve Keane.

As an elected official, Hatcher can only be removed from office in a county election. He also can step down voluntarily before his term is up at the end of 2022.

The eight charges listed in the recall effort are that he did the following:

• Illegally appropriated for his own use 14 cases of ammunition belonging to Benton County.

• Illegally tampered with physical evidence by directing the distribution of ammunition that was potential evidence of his own alleged unlawful acts

• Interfered in an investigation into his conduct by acting to prevent witnesses from being interviewed.

• Violated county anti-discrimination policy by hindering an investigation into his conduct and retaliating against the complainant and witnesses to the investigation.

• Illegally intimidated public servants and witnesses in investigations into his conduct by raising false allegations of impropriety and threatening witnesses’ jobs.

• Illegally made false or misleading statements to law enforcement and the court regarding the number of firearms he needed to surrender pursuant to a court order.

• Illegally made false or misleading statements to public servants claiming that he had initiated a criminal investigation into his own conduct when he had not.

• Falsified a public record by placing a false date on an investigation request.

Over the last year, Hatcher has faced a number of challenges – from his contentious divorce filed by his estranged wife to complaints brought by employees to calls by Benton County commissioners for a criminal investigation and the sheriff to quit.

As part of a judge’s order in the divorce case for Hatcher to surrender all of his guns, it was discovered that he had 14,200 rounds of ammunition stocked in the garage of the Benton County home he had shared with his wife.

Meanwhile, Benton County commissioners are waiting for an update from the Washington state Auditor’s Office. The auditors were asked to look into the inventory and tracking of weapons and ammunition in the Benton County Sheriff’s Office as part of their annual audit review.

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