King County Sheriff John Urquhart defended the deputy’s firing, noting an arbitrator agreed she committed the misconduct. “She was subsequently fired for dishonesty,” he said.
Another former deputy has sued King County, claiming Sheriff John Urquhart discriminates against female officers and targets them for speaking out against his alleged mismanagement — in this case, a gay black woman who claims the sheriff illegally fired her.
In a lawsuit filed Monday, Andrea Alexander, 56, a 26-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, claims Urquhart unfairly subjected her to an internal probe in 2013 after department officials discovered she’d been mistakenly overpaid.
The investigation was simply a means for Urquhart to fire her on a dishonesty violation that was drummed up after she protested her removal from a longtime assignment as a patrol training sergeant, her suit contends.
An arbitrator later found Alexander had been dishonest, but her discipline wasn’t reasonable. After she won her job back, Alexander claims Urquhart continued retaliating against her. Her suit alleges she was shuffled into several undesirable job assignments before retiring amid the ongoing harassment.
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“This is just another example of John Urquhart fundamentally damaging a person’s reputation through his vindictiveness and reckless retaliation,” Julie Kays, the Seattle lawyer representing Alexander, said in an interview. “It’s no secret this is how he operates.”
Urquhart defended his firing of Alexander as appropriate in a statement issued Wednesday.
“Andrea Alexander took money for an extended period of time while knowing she was not entitled to that money, which she admitted,” the statement said. “An outside arbitrator agreed. She was subsequently fired for dishonesty. She never once raised a claim of retaliation or harassment as a reason for the investigation or termination.”
The sheriff’s office also released a November 2013 letter Urquhart sent to Alexander explaining his disciplinary decision, and an email he wrote to his command staff after her dismissal. Both records indicated Alexander acknowledged she knew she was being overpaid, but didn’t tell anyone.
According to the lawsuit, two of Urquhart’s commanders informed Alexander that she was being “disciplined” when they removed her in 2012 from her longtime assignment as a training sergeant to new deputies.
Alexander contends she protested the move, asking the commanders, Capt. Sean Ledford and Major Jerrell Wills, to explain their reasons for singling her out. The superior officers allegedly responded with only blank stares and by walking out of her office, the suit alleges.
“Alexander knew in that moment that she was being treated differently than her peers and retaliated against because she is a woman, gay, and African American,” the lawsuit states. “It was and is well known within the KCSO that Sheriff Urquhart has engaged in a pattern of vindictive and retaliatory acts against women and gay women.”
To support her contentions, the lawsuit cites two other bias lawsuits brought primarily by female deputies that have resulted in a combined $2.35 million in settlements since December 2013. It also points to recent testimony given in one of the cases by two current sheriff’s captains who formerly commanded the department’s Internal Investigations Unit (IIU) under Urquhart.
The captains, Jesse Anderson and Donald Nesel, each “provided sworn testimony that Urquhart used his position as sheriff to shape outcomes of IIU investigations, and as a means to retaliate against employees who spoke out against unlawful actions taken by the department,” the suit contends.
After Alexander was removed from her training sergeant’s position, a white male sergeant with “significantly less experience” replaced her, the suit claims. Meantime, Wills neglected to remove a $240 monthly premium payment from Alexander’s paycheck.
More than nine months later, when Alexander was allowed to return to a training sergeant’s role, a payroll sergeant discovered she’d been overpaid by $2,018, according to the disciplinary letter Urquhart later wrote to Alexander.
Alexander’s suit contends the sheriff’s office should have followed a state law and county guidelines that allow employees to reimburse overpayments. Instead, Alexander faced an internal investigation that resulted in a sustained dishonesty finding.
Two commanders recommended Alexander be demoted and suspended for 20 days without pay, but Urquhart increased the discipline, citing the seriousness of her dishonesty.
“As Sheriff, I have to have trust and confidence in your honesty, candor and professional judgment,” he wrote. “Your proven deception, and refusal to accept responsibility … have irretrievably damaged the trust and confidence that are necessary for you to be an effective member of this office.”
The lawsuit contends “dozens and dozens” of other sheriff’s employees have been overpaid, yet none ever faced the harsh treatment Alexander did. The suit includes copies of an October 2013 email thread in which county payroll personnel informed a legal adviser for Urquhart before his decision to fire her that they knew of no other employees who had been investigated for being overpaid, and provided examples of overpaid employees who were given options for reimbursing the county.
“Even after the Sheriff’s legal adviser learned from KCSO employees who handle these overpayment issues that employees who receive these overpayments are not investigated by IIU, the Sheriff proceeded to discriminate against Alexander by subjecting her to an IIU investigation and ultimately firing her,” the lawsuit states.
Alexander ultimately paid back the overpayment, but Urquhart still fired her and sought to “publicly humiliate” her by “telling the local media that Alexander was dishonest,” the suit claims.
Alexander later won her job back after an arbitrator found that she had been dishonest, but agreed with a grievance filed by the King County Police Officers Guild that Alexander’s firing wasn’t reasonable discipline. But rather than reinstate her to a training sergeant’s position, she was put into “undesirable assignments and “shuffled around,” the suit contends.
“Alexander was so anguished and emotionally distraught by the ongoing mistreatment by KCSO command staff that she was forced to retire early,” the suit states.
The suit does not specify an amount in damages Alexander is seeking.