The Medina Police Department’s seven-person team may be small.
But the retrial this week of a racial-discrimination case filed by a fired police chief, the recent hiring of a new chief who had been demoted while a State Patrol leader, and a July City Council decision to not pay for presidential-visit security show the department has no problem drawing attention.
A retrial to determine whether the city of Medina racially discriminated against former Chief Jeffrey Chen began Monday with allegations from both sides that have been disputed for almost four years now.
The previous jury awarded Chen, who is Asian American, $2 million as a victim of discrimination, but — in a rare move — U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly vacated the verdict last year, saying Chen’s lawyer “relied primarily on innuendo and subterfuge rather than on evidence” to establish racial motivation for the firing.
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According to lawyers representing the city, Chen was fired after a city investigation found he had forged memos, dismissed tickets, lied about looking through city email archives and spent city dollars on personal use. But Chen and supporters of his, who have crowded Medina City Council meetings, say those claims were hunted after and exaggerated.
Chen’s lawyer, Marianne Jones, reiterated Monday in several allegations that a former Medina city manager hired in 2008, Donna Hanson, made comments that Chen perceived as racist and that she had set out for years to ruin Chen’s career, which took him to Medina in 2001.
“She set out to destroy him because she felt she needed to destroy him,” Jones said in her opening statements to a 12-person jury. Two people of color are on the jury, including one of Asian descent.
Jones said the firing destroyed Chen’s reputation as a law-enforcement official. After applying for hundreds of jobs since 2011, Jones said Chen now works at a South Seattle Costco for $23.50 an hour with job duties that can include sweeping the parking lot and bagging groceries.
Among the remarks Jones said Hanson made to Chen — many that the city of Medina disputes or says were taken out of context — are, “I thought Chinese people were more patient than that” and, regarding Thanksgiving, “do you people eat turkey?”
Lawyers representing the city of Medina recounted the offenses the city investigation found Chen had committed. Lawyer Suzanne Kelly Michael also said Hanson’s question about turkey, which Chen claims is a demonstration of latent racism, may have been aimed at a vegan co-worker who was near him.
“This case has nothing to do with race,” Michael said.
Last year, Hanson also lost her job under a severance agreement with the City Council that included a year’s pay of $156,745 and $57,976 in retirement, deferred compensation and other benefits.
Medina isn’t the first place Chen has been investigated. While he was a patrol officer at the Seattle Police Department, he was suspected of being reimbursed for a Las Vegas hotel room allegedly given to him for free. The probe was dropped after he left for Medina.
Chen was replaced in 2011 by Mark Thomas, who stepped down from the position last September. Lt. Dan Yourkoski has served as the interim leader of the department since then.
Starting Sept. 2, the city’s next police chief will be Steve Burns, a Washington State Patrol captain who was involved in a controversial overtime case.
Investigators found a lieutenant, a subordinate of Burns’, had clocked in enough overtime to become the highest-paid State Patrol employee in 2010. About $72,000 of the lieutenant’s $163,000 salary that year was from overtime, according to the State Patrol.
Cited for “a loss of confidence,” Burns was demoted to lieutenant and assigned to the State Patrol’s Homeland Security division. “To his credit, he brought that up himself at each interview panel,” said Medina City Manager Mike Sauerwein.
Burns told the city he was eventually promoted twice after the demotion. This month he leaves a post as director of the Washington State Fusion Center, a State Patrol department that coordinates with federal law-enforcement entities.
Sauerwein said Burns’ last position makes him a good fit for Medina, where the Police Department often needs to coordinate with federal security officers for visits from the president and other political dignitaries. It’s common for high-profile politicians from both the Democrat and Republican parties to attend fundraising dinners at wealthy homes in Medina and Hunts Point. (Hunts Point contracts with the Medina Police Department for law enforcement.)
Before President Obama’s July fundraising visit to the Hunts Point home of former Costco CEO Jim Sinegal, Medina made headlines when it announced it would not help pay for any city resources used to help safely escort the president, or anyone else in the future. The city said it would send a bill for any resources directly to Sinegal. The total overtime cost calculated for Obama’s visit was $1,295.72, Sauerwein said.
Drama and political turmoil at the city of Medina and its Police Department are nothing new. Before Chen was fired, a state audit scolded him and the city for not adequately tracking $18,000 in purchases made on Chen’s credit card. The city also went through two city managers in about two years before hiring Hanson in 2008.
Sauerwein said that many city employees, including himself, were not around in 2010 when controversies involving Chen came to a head, and that the city has finally moved past the tension that situation caused.
“I think that’s behind us,” Sauerwein said. “What we need now is long-term, steady leadership, and that’s our goal so we can do the important jobs we need to do.”