Sheriff John Urquhart denies the allegations by the Puget Sound Police Managers Association, saying the complaint is “full of lies and is a transparent attempt to generate bad press in the midst of a political campaign.”
King County Sheriff John Urquhart and two of his top associates allegedly tried to intimidate the sheriff’s political opponent and threatened to “destroy” any sheriff’s commander who publicly supported her, according to a complaint filed Tuesday by the union representing the department’s high-ranking commanders.
Urquhart’s alleged meddling in campaign-related issues is part of a long list of misconduct claims detailed in the unfair labor practices complaint filed by the Puget Sound Police Managers Association (PSPMA) with the state’s Public Employees Relations Commission.
The complaint — which lays out multiple claims that if true, would variously violate collective-bargaining rights, department policies and state law — also contends Urquhart has repeatedly lied in public statements; that he blatantly bullies and retaliates against those who complain about his conduct; and that he has used underlings to spy on the union’s meetings, among other allegations.
“This stuff has been leaking out about the sheriff and his staff, and the drip is becoming a flow,” Capt. Scott Somers, a 37-year-deputy and a union executive board member, said in a statement Tuesday. “ … We’re not going to be part of his cover-up.”
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Urquhart roundly denied the allegations in an emailed statement Tuesday, dismissing them as lies generated by a few captains “upset by the fact that I’ve held them to the same standard as deputies when they commit misconduct.”
“These same captains are financing my opponent’s campaign,” Urquhart said. “The complaint is full of lies and is a transparent attempt to generate bad press in the midst of a political campaign. None of the allegations are true.”
According to the complaint, when the union in recent months tried to privately discuss its increasing concerns with Urquhart, the sheriff began targeting union leadership and interfering in its affairs as part of “his campaign of retaliation, intimidation and surveillance.”
The union, which represents nine majors and 21 captains holding key management positions, described the complaint’s filing as “extraordinary,” noting sheriff’s managers historically have implemented and defended the policies and direction of the sitting sheriff.
Some of the union’s most explosive contentions center on Urquhart allegedly using his office to meddle in this year’s sheriff’s campaign.
The complaint alleges Urquhart directed his chief of staff, Chris Barringer, to confront Maj. Mitzi Johanknecht — a commander of the sheriff’s Southwest Precinct and an executive board member for the union — about her plans to challenge Urquhart in the coming election.
In late April, as word of her candidacy got out, “Barringer showed up uninvited at Major Johanknecht’s office and closed the door,” the complaint states.
“Barringer attempted to interrogate Major Johanknecht about her intention to run for sheriff. Johanknecht told him the conversation was inappropriate and refused to engage in conversation about campaign activities.”
Days later, on May 8 — shortly after Urquhart promoted Noel Fryberger to a newly created major’s position heading the internal-affairs squad — Fryberger allegedly issued a warning to the union’s vice president, Marcus Williams:
“You can tell your little friends at the Captain’s Union that if anyone goes all in for Mitzi (Johanknecht), John (Urquhart) will destroy them,” the complaint quotes Fryberger as telling Williams.
King County’s ethics code and state law forbid public employees from engaging in campaign activities while on the job or using county facilities to assist a political campaign.
The union’s complaint also details a variety of other misconduct allegations, including:
• Urquhart has improperly retaliated against several union leaders by orchestrating internal-affairs probes or criminal investigations of them, including a bogus investigation of Capt. Carl Cole, the union’s president, after he testified in a court case involving discrimination allegations against Urquhart.
• Urquhart unfairly demoted Capt. Rodney Chinnick to sergeant after Chinnick declined Urquhart’s order to assume command of the internal-affairs squad. Chinnick, who declined the transfer due to “significant ethical concerns with Urquhart” and his alleged meddling in internal probes, has since been skipped over for promotion.
• After the union sent a letter to Urquhart in February, raising concerns that Urquhart directed internal investigators not to document or review allegations that Urquhart raped or engaged in consensual sex with a former deputy whom he supervised, Barringer interrogated a union member and warned him the letter amounted to a “declaration of war.”
• Urquhart publicly lied to Cole, saying Barringer had passed a background check and polygraph test “with flying colors” even though a summary of the polygraph’s results were later widely disseminated throughout the department and showed Barringer exhibited “automatic disqualifiers” during the background process. The sheriff opened an internal investigation of Cole after he shared Barringer’s background information during a union meeting discussing Urquhart’s credibility.
Urquhart and Barringer have previously contended several of the allegations already have been found to be baseless.
A criminal investigation of the woman’s rape allegations found no probable cause to support charges against Urquhart; and an ombudsman’s report found Urquhart truthfully attested Barringer met employment background requirements when enrolling Barringer in the state police academy.
Union officials say both issues have yet to be fully addressed and warrant further scrutiny.