Craig Watson, the general counsel for the Port of Seattle for the past 13 years, was the subject of an investigation that led Port leadership to lose trust in him.
The Port of Seattle will pay half-a-million dollars to its longtime chief lawyer to leave the agency after investigating a workplace complaint lodged against him.
The Port commission on Tuesday voted unanimously to let go of general counsel Craig Watson and give him $500,000 as part of a settlement agreement to avoid a potential legal battle over his employment status.
Stephen Metruck, the Port’s executive director, wrote in a memo to commissioners that an investigation had been launched after “a recent internal workplace complaint about Craig Watson.”
The findings showed “the incident was insufficient to support” firing a decades-long employee, but the executive director and the commissioners “have lost trust and confidence in Mr. Watson’s ability to carry out his duties and responsibilities,” Metruck said.
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What exactly happened to spark the investigation is unclear — a Port spokesman declined to comment further, saying the settlement agreement had not yet been signed. Commissioners either declined to comment or did not return requests seeking comment.
Reached at home Wednesday, Watson said he could not comment because of the agreement entered into with the Port.
“I’m proud of my 28 years of service at the Port and I wish everybody there the best,” he said. Watson had been general counsel for the past 13 years.
Before the commission vote, Metruck said the employee complaint against Watson “raised serious questions about trust and shared values.”
“All employees are entitled to work in a safe, positive and inclusive environment that is free of harassment and discrimination,” Metruck said, according to video of the meeting on the Port website. “When that is not the case, it is my responsibility as the executive director to move quickly to ensure that steps are taken to address the situation.”
The commissioners then quickly voted to approve the settlement, without discussion.
While it’s not uncommon for public agencies to reach settlement agreements to ease employees out in hopes of avoiding a costly legal battle, $500,000 is on the high end of such payouts. It amounts to about two years’ worth of salary; Watson earned $220,000 in 2015.
In 2013, Seattle’s City Employees’ Retirement System eased out its then-executive director with a $313,000 settlement. A spokesman for the King County Assessor’s Office was paid about $37,000 on his way out the door this year.
Records show the Port recently signed contracts totaling $46,000 for an outside legal counsel, the Lane Powell law firm, and a private corporate investigator to investigate “an employee matter.” The exact subject wasn’t disclosed, but the person who signed the agreements for the Port, at the end of March, was a Port lawyer named Isabel Safora, who was listed as the agency’s “acting general counsel.” It wasn’t immediately clear how long Watson has been away from the Port.
Watson had not been free of controversy during his tenure at the Port.
Last year, it emerged that the Port had paid its managers and other nonunion employees $4.8 million in bonuses that the state auditor later deemed illegal. Watson was in charge of reviewing the legality of the bonus program; it turned out he got a $15,400 bonus in the program. (After the news became public, Watson and other executives said they would return the bonuses).
In 2008, Watson was reprimanded as part of an outside investigation into fraudulent contracting practices stemming from a runway built at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Watson was not responsible for the fraud but the CEO at the time determined Watson could have done more to prevent it.
The Port is also no stranger to high-profile executive departures under strained circumstances. Last year, the former CEO resigned under a cloud of controversy that included the illegal bonus program, improper gifts and reports of a potential sexual-harassment complaint against him. In 2013, a Port commissioner resigned following problems that included misuse of Port credit cards. And two managers resigned in 2008 as part of the runway-contract scandal.
The commission in December brought in Metruck, a former rear admiral and chief financial officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, largely to help reverse public-trust issues.
Tom Tanaka, a longtime lawyer at the Port, will take over as acting general counsel while the agency searches for a permanent replacement.