Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon’s resignation came Thursday morning as leaders of his own political party were beginning discussions about how to get him out of office.
Reardon, a Democrat, had grown increasingly isolated over the past two years as he weathered scandal after scandal: an alleged extramarital affair with a county employee, appearing to use county resources for his campaign, a Washington State Patrol criminal investigation into his travel.
His surprise resignation at the end of a routine speech came on the heels of newspaper reports that tied members of his staff to records requests about county employees who cooperated with the State Patrol investigation into Reardon.
The county prosecutor is pursuing yet another investigation into Reardon’s behavior, and, on Wednesday, the Snohomish County Council removed the Department of Information Services from the executive’s control, citing concerns about data security.
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Reardon tendered his resignation effective May 31, but said the accusations about him are false.
“It is impossible for me to describe to you the emotional and financial toll these relentless attacks have taken on my wife, my family and me,” he said.
He called for an independent investigation into “false and scurrilous accusations.”
Paul Berendt, a former chairman of the Washington State Democrats and longtime Reardon defender, said Democrats have grown weary of Reardon’s problems and conversation had begun among top party officials about how to get him out of office.
He said voters were unlikely to overlook the latest accusations.
“People will tolerate an affair,” Berendt said. “They will tolerate campaign funny business … but they don’t want to tolerate something that feels Nixonian. They will not tolerate something that feels like there are enemies, and any lists that are being kept. … I feel sorry for him. I don’t know. I just — but I do believe this is best.”
By county charter, the Snohomish County Democrats will select three candidates to replace Reardon, and the Snohomish County Council will fill the seat by selecting from that group.
That person will have to run in 2014, and the seat will be on the ballot again in 2015.
Names of possible candidates already were circulating Wednesday: Snohomish County Sheriff John Lovick, council members Brian Sullivan, Dave Somers and Dave Gossett, and state Sen. Steve Hobbs.
Had Reardon stepped down by May 17, his seat could have been on the ballot this year. Waiting until May 31 essentially ensures a Democrat will stay in office an extra year.
Reardon’s announcement brings a sudden stop to the political rise of one of Snohomish County’s most divisive figures. Reardon, 42, had been in public office since he was 28. He has never lost an election. An Everett native, he won his first term in the state House in 1998. He moved on to the Senate and was elected Snohomish County executive in 2003, re-elected in ’07 and then again in 2011.
Democrats had high hopes for Reardon, and his name surfaced in discussions about statewide office openings, open congressional seats, even the 2012 Democratic gubernatorial primary.
In Snohomish County, Reardon was famously insular, governing with a tight pack of insiders. He often scrapped publicly with the Democrat-controlled Snohomish County Council.
His political troubles began to mount in 2011 when the Washington State Patrol agreed to investigate his travel after a Snohomish County employee, Tamara Dutton, said she and Reardon had a six-year affair and that she had joined him on an official county trip.
The investigation widened into Reardon’s campaign activities after newspaper reports that he appeared to be using his county cellphone and office to make campaign-fundraising calls when his official calendar said he was in staff meetings.
The six-month investigation yielded no charges, and Reardon hired an attorney and hunkered down, commenting only to say he had done nothing illegal.
Snohomish County Council member John Koster, R-Arlington, described Reardon as “Teflon Man. Nothing seemed to stick to him.”
Others said it was clear the scandals were making it hard for Reardon to get much done. He was rarely seen in public or around the county administrative building. When President Obama visited Snohomish County last February, Reardon was not among the elected officials who appeared on the tarmac to greet him.
“He’s been kind of muted by it,” said Richard Wright, the chairman of the Snohomish County Democratic Party. “It’s hard to come out and take a strong position on a policy when the first time you poke your head out of the office, you’re still answering questions about the last scandal because you haven’t put them to bed. You know, no pun intended.”
In July, a person calling himself Edmond Thomas made a public-records request for emails, calendars, phone logs and other records for 15 county employees. Among them were employees who did interviews about Reardon with State Patrol detectives during the investigation, including Reardon’s former mistress, two members of the Snohomish County Council, the county prosecuting attorney and his wife, the county auditor and others.
A Reardon staffer, Kevin Hulten, has said that he made the records requests.
The Herald newspaper in Everett reported that Hulten also is tied to several Web pages that attack Reardon’s political opponents, including state Rep. Mike Hope, Reardon’s opponent in his 2011 re-election campaign.
Hulten and Reardon have acknowledged the records requests and said they are legal and that Hulten did them on his own time. The reports got the attention of Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe and the County Council, and they are seeking a criminal investigation into the executive’s involvement and whether the requests were attempts to intimidate county staff.
Political consultant Ron Dotzauer said the records-request issue “smacks of Nixonian politics” and caused Reardon to lose support.
“If they’d have left the conversation at philandering, and the State Patrol gave him a pass, he could have survived,” Dotzauer said. But now, “if he hadn’t resigned, there would have been a very serious effort to recall him.”
Elected officials who attended Reardon’s speech Thursday morning at the Everett Golf and Country Club said he read his routine comments about land use and the county jail, then shocked everyone in the room with his news.
“Hopefully we can put all of this behind us,” said Roe. “It has definitely been a cloud over the county. I just hope this decision is the end of it and we can move on.”
Hope said the resignation is an opportunity to instill integrity in the office.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” he said. “These are the same allegations we heard even back during the campaign.”
“I thought he would try to stick it out and ride the waves and complete his term,” said state Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip. “I was only mildly surprised to hear he had resigned. Things were just deteriorating around him.” He said Reardon’s public and personal problems were a distraction from the work needed to get done.
“There were a lot of questions he needed to be answering, and he wasn’t answering them.”
Koster said Reardon had no one to blame but himself for the stress the allegations had put on his family.
“It’s a little bit out of character for Aaron, because he’s such a fighter,” Koster said. “In the future, we have just got to bring integrity and accountability to the county government. It just grieves me. It just fuels this negative feeling people have about government right now.”
Council member Somers said the continued allegations “really put a pall over county government. It just has been a great distraction.”
Staff reporters Brian Rosenthal and Sarah Freishtat contributed to this report. Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter