Chris Barringer, chief of staff for King County Sheriff John Urquhart, failed a polygraph test in 2012 and shouldn’t have been hired, a detective who reviewed the results concluded. Barringer contends he never lied, while the sheriff said a second polygraph showed “zero issues.”
King County Sheriff John Urquhart’s chief of staff failed a polygraph test required for his employment in 2012 and shouldn’t have been hired, a detective who reviewed the test results later concluded.
Chris Barringer, a close confidant of Urquhart who for a time lived with the sheriff in his Mercer Island home, was hired in December 2012 after the department’s longtime Human Resources director said he’d passed the department’s mandatory polygraph and background-check requirements.
But when Detective Tiffany Atwood reviewed Barringer’s test results about six months later, she discovered he had scored “a significant response” to a question about bribery. During the test, Barringer also disclosed using marijuana on several occasions — grounds for disqualification because he hadn’t previously disclosed that in a separate background questionnaire, Atwood wrote.
“In regards to these polygraph results, this significant response concludes that Barringer did not pass his polygraph, which I had previously been told that he had,” Atwood wrote in a timeline summary of her review last year.
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Atwood’s review emerged in court papers filed last month as part of an ongoing lawsuit against King County by one current and two former deputies. The suit alleges that high-ranking commanders in the Sheriff’s Office have engaged in a pattern of discrimination and harassment against women deputies, and retaliation against those who complain. The county contends the suit has no merit.
Barringer told The Seattle Times in an interview Friday he was truthful throughout the hiring process. “I have never lied or misrepresented anything on a polygraph examination,” he said.
Urquhart, who last year attested in sworn documents that Barringer passed the department’s polygraph and background qualifications, and insisted as much during a formal internal affairs investigation, disputes Atwood’s conclusions as “patently untrue.”
To quell what the sheriff described as “rumors” about Barringer’s failed polygraph, Urquhart set up a second test for him last year, before Barringer enrolled in the state’s police academy.
Barringer passed that test with “zero issues,” Urquhart said in written statements provided to The Times last week.
Complaints, firings outlined
In the lawsuit, former deputies Amy Shoblom and Louis Caballero contend they were retaliated against for complaining that a sergeant repeatedly sexually harassed Shoblom. The third deputy named in the suit, Sgt. Diana Neff, who still works for the department, contends supervisors retaliated against her after she complained about a hostile work environment for female deputies.
Urquhart fired Shoblom and Caballero for dishonesty last year after a Metro bus driver’s secret videotape disputed the two transit deputies’ claims that the driver cursed at them during an argument. Neff was involuntarily transferred out of the Shoreline precinct, where the alleged discrimination occurred, and is now assigned to Maple Valley, which contracts with the Sheriff’s Office for police services.
Atwood’s review of Barringer’s polygraph results is among a flurry of documents recently filed as part of the suit. The trial is scheduled for January.
Attorney Julie Kays, who represents the plaintiffs, said Barringer’s polygraph issue is relevant to the lawsuit. “It raises questions of integrity, of public trust, of honesty, and that’s what our lawsuit is about,” Kays said.
Urquhart gave his own written statements — and a binder of information — to The Times last week, contending Kays is dangling “red herring arguments to obfuscate the facts,” and using the media to “manipulate public opinion.”
Polygraph raises questions
Urquhart tapped Barringer, a civilian, as his chief of staff after Barringer managed his successful campaign for sheriff in 2012.
A hiring memo dated Nov. 27, 2012, signed by Atwood and then-Human Resources Director Virginia Gleason shows Barringer passed his mandatory polygraph and background checks.
But in a detailed timeline submitted last year, Atwood, then a detective in the department’s Background Unit, acknowledged she hadn’t actually seen the results before signing that document. Rather, Atwood accepted Gleason’s word “that Barringer had passed,” she wrote.
About six months later, when the Background Unit received the results, Atwood “became aware of the issues with the polygraph,” she wrote.The paperwork indicated that during the exam, administered by Seattle police Detective Elizabeth Ellis, Barringer showed a “significant response” three times to the question, “Have you ever solicited or accepted a bribe?”
“After the test was complete, Detective Ellis asked Barringer what he may have been thinking about when she asked him that question,” Atwood wrote.
“Barringer stated he wasn’t really thinking about anything and then stated when he worked for Metropolitan King County Council member Reagan Dunn, he was suspicious of some of the campaign contributors but wasn’t thinking about that specifically during the test. Barringer stated that neither he nor Reagan Dunn accepted any bribes.”
Dunn said Monday he only learned about the polygraph issue from Barringer on Friday. “I can’t speculate, but what I know is that Chris seemed like an ethical and a moral guy when he worked for me, and we run a very clean shop,” Dunn said.
During the polygraph, Barringer also disclosed to Ellis that he’d used marijuana in the past, an admission he hadn’t made in his background paperwork, Atwood wrote.
Atwood submitted her conclusions to a supervisor in July 2015, shortly before Barringer planned to enroll in the state police academy to become a commissioned law-enforcement officer. Atwood noted her concern that if Barringer enrolled in the academy, the sheriff would be required to certify documents attesting that Barringer had successfully passed his background and polygraph, “which is not the case.”
Atwood, who Urquhart said is now facing discipline on an unrelated matter, did not return messages seeking comment.
About a month after Atwood submitted her conclusions, Urquhart asked Norm Matzke, a former longtime polygraph examiner for the sheriff’s office, to give Barringer a second test.
In a letter to Matzke, Urquhart explained he chose Matzke to conduct the second “pre-employment” polygraph of Barringer — instead of using the Sheriff’s Office or Seattle police — to “avoid any more leaks.” The sheriff acknowledged that Barringer’s previous polygraph found a “significant response” to the bribery question.
“My HR/Background folks took it upon themselves to consider that as a failed-the-polygraph,” Urquhart wrote. “I do not consider that a failure. And neither did Virginia Gleason or my current HR Director Lance King.”
Matzke later reported that Barringer passed the second test. The Sheriff’s Office declined to provide the list of questions Matzke asked Barringer during the second test, citing confidentiality rules.
“One of the questions was, `Have you ever committed a crime — other than the times I smoked marijuana,’ ” Barringer said Friday.
Speaking generally about polygraph results, Terry Ball, a nationally certified examiner who serves on the executive board of the Northwest Polygraph Examiners Association, told The Times last week a “significant response” would indicate deception and a test failure.
Ball added any subsequent polygraph given to check whether a person lied should be “a single issue” test that drills down on the specific issue in question.
Internal investigation launched
A month after Barringer’s second polygraph, a civilian sheriff’s employee formally complained to the county ombudsman after hearing that Barringer had been allowed to enter the police academy despite failing a polygraph.
The complaint sparked an internal investigation to examine whether a Sheriff’s employee improperly released Barringer’s confidential background records.
Then-Internal Investigations Unit commander Capt. Jesse Anderson asked Urquhart and King, the human-resources director, for access to Barringer’s polygraph results to resolve the matter. They refused, citing a policy that limits divulging such information on a “need to know” basis.
“The Sheriff said he knows for a fact that Mr. Barringer passed the polygraph and that I don’t need the results,’” Anderson later wrote. “His word is all that IIU needs to address that issue.” The probe also concluded there was no unauthorized release of background records.
Urquhart also ordered the employee who made the complaint to “stop spreading rumors” and warned he could face discipline, the report said.
Barringer, 34, is a former prosecutor who earned $142,217 as the sheriff’s chief of staff last year. He graduated from the police academy this year.