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Internal investigation shows troopers wrong to appear in ad against car tab initiative

Dan Cockerham, center, of Puyallup, Wash., holds a sign that reads “Hey Olympia, what part of $30 car tabs don’t you understand?” in January.  (Ted S. Warren)
Dan Cockerham, center, of Puyallup, Wash., holds a sign that reads “Hey Olympia, what part of $30 car tabs don’t you understand?” in January. (Ted S. Warren)
By Jared Brown For The Spokesman-Review

The involvement of Washington State Patrol troopers in a political ad opposing Tim Eyman’s car tab measure last fall prompted an internal investigation and the resignation of a veteran officer.

The political participation wasn’t vetted by the agency, and the troopers’ union then-president lied about getting approval, including for two troopers to drive patrol cars to a video shoot while on duty, according to an internal investigation.

The Washington State Patrol Troopers Association’s former leader, 34-year department veteran Jeff Merrill, went on medical leave in December amid allegations that he was untruthful with colleagues. He avoided answering after abruptly stepping down as president, then retiring as a trooper in February as the internal investigation was concluding.

Merrill, whose personnel file reflects no other instances of misconduct, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

WSP policies involving the political activities of troopers have not changed as a result of the investigation, according to WSP Sgt. Darren Wright, a department spokesperson. Troopers do not need approval to appear in political ads if they follow a number of agency regulations, such as not representing themselves as a WSP employee.

“We can’t control what is said in an ad,” Wright said. “What we do have control over is what our employees do as representatives of our agency.”

The passage of I-976, which promised to slash vehicle registration fees to $30 statewide and has been ensnared in the courts since it was approved by voters, temporarily put major transportation projects on hold, such as the North Spokane Corridor, and led the Legislature to revise the state’s $10 billion transportation budget.

The official complaint about Merrill’s dishonesty came from a trooper who was filmed for the “No on I-976” ad after he learned that Merrill lied to him and a WSP sergeant about having approval to drive to the filming location in their patrol cars while still on duty. In fact, the involvement of the trooper and sergeant – who were not found guilty of wrongdoing – wasn’t known to top WSP officials in advance.

“All my trust, all my respect, all those things I just described to you about Jeff (Merrill) have been blown completely out of the water, and I’m still, to this day, dumbfounded as to why,” the trooper, Nicholas King, told investigators. “I don’t understand any of it.”

Footage of King never aired, but a television commercial showing Sgt. Courtney Stewart in a law enforcement costume was first reviewed by WSP officials for identifying her as a state trooper, which violates WSP policy, Q13 Fox reported. An updated version identified her as a WSPTA member but drew additional criticism from troopers and the public.

In the ad, Stewart noted the more than 500 traffic fatalities Washington saw in 2017 and claimed I-976’s cuts to transportation funding would harm driver safety through threats to road projects and bridge repairs.

“Join firefighters, nurses, EMTs and troopers and protect all of us by voting ‘no’ on 976,” Stewart said while reading from a script that was identical to King’s version.

The WSPTA also donated $10,000 to the campaign opposing I-976, Keep Washington Rolling, according to data from the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Current WSPTA President Spike Unruh, who was vice president until Merrill resigned, said he reminded Merrill that trooper involvement couldn’t be on department time or use agency resources, as well as that it should be vetted by supervisors for potential ethics violations, according to investigative documents.

WSP’s internal investigation showed how Merrill’s colleagues either assumed or were led to believe that he had received agency approval to move forward with the ad campaign after Unruh allowed him to handle the specifics of coordinating trooper involvement.

“It was always, ‘We were all good,’ ” Unruh said of Merrill’s assurances. ” ‘I’ve taken care of it.’ “

Then, on Sept. 12, 2019, Unruh and Merrill boarded a plane as plans for shooting the ads changed: The production company asked to move filming up more than an hour, when Stewart and King were still on duty.

King then asked Merrill about getting their captain’s approval to drive their patrol cars to the filming location before their shifts ended.

Unruh told investigators he responded to Merrill with a resounding “no” – plus an expletive.

“You know the rules,” Unruh remembered saying, along with laughing when Merrill said he’d try to get a captain’s approval anyway.

During a phone call with Captain Ron Mead, Unruh said he overheard Mead tell Merrill that authorization would have to come from WSP Chief John Batiste.

But after the two-hour flight, Unruh said Merrill told him, “Captain Mead gave me the thumbs-up. We just got to keep it quiet.”

“I knew he was not telling the truth,” Unruh told investigators.

But by that time Merrill had already communicated with King – telling the trooper to keep it between the two of them. King then passed the information to Stewart.

“It’s all deception. (A) lie. The whole entire thing,” Unruh said.

Unruh did not respond to multiple requests for comment about how union policies for political activities may have changed since the investigation.

The union’s political action committee has donated $24,000 to individual candidates during the 2020 election cycle, including $2,000 to Gov. Jay Inslee, according to data from the state Public Disclosure Commission. It also sent $1,000 each to two campaign committees for state senate and house Republicans.

Stewart, who had worked with Merrill on numerous activities for the WSPTA, told investigators she believed everything she’d ever done for him had been vetted by WSP officials and trusted the same was the case for the ad.

Separately, Stewart said she spoke with her direct supervisor in advance about appearing in the ad and potentially taking time off to commute to the video shoot at the end of her shift, according to investigative documents.

On the way to filming, she crossed the boundary of her patrol area at about the time her shift ended.

“No on 976” campaign organizers eventually pulled the ad depicting Stewart, according to the investigation. Multiple versions are still published on YouTube.

As rumors swirled about negative reactions from colleagues and a potential investigation of trooper involvement after the ad aired in late September, King said Merrill assured him there were no issues with the campaign.

King contacted Unruh as the gossip continued, prompting the union vice president to tell an assistant chief what he knew about the ad campaign.

The commander confirmed there would be an investigation and Unruh said he later told Merrill that he wouldn’t allow Stewart and King to take the blame for his mistakes.

“Merrill’s actions of misleading Stewart and King caused a lessening of public confidence in the agency as represented by numerous complaints filed against the agency immediately after Stewart’s advertisement aired publicly,” WSP Captain Shane Nelson wrote at the conclusion of the investigation.

Nelson said the investigation would not be forwarded to an assistant chief for a disciplinary decision – which could have included termination – due to Merrill’s retirement.

The investigations of King and Stewart found they made unintentional errors based on “inaccurate and inappropriate information from Trooper Merrill,” according to Wright, the WSP spokesperson.

“As president of the (troopers) association, what I tell you is supposed to be basically like what the chief tells you. It’s gospel,” Unruh told investigators. “I’m supposed to have the best interests of our members. For everything. For your contract, for negotiations, for your pay and wages, for your working environment.”

“And what (Merrill’s actions) basically did is, it tarnished us.”

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