Early last year, a whistleblower alleged the adult children of two high-ranking officials in King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg’s office appeared to have unfairly received internships, jobs or other special treatment that broke county ethics rules.

The nepotism complaint, filed in January 2020, spurred the county’s ombudsman to hire an outside attorney to investigate whether the son and daughter-in-law of Mark Larson, longtime chief of Satterberg’s criminal division, and the stepson of his human resources director, Heidi Parkington-Thal, had improperly benefited.

Satterberg’s office denied the claims. But after a monthslong investigation turned up nearly 1,500 pages of records, the office asked the ombuds to halt the probe and negotiate a settlement. In August, a never-before-used compromise called an “early resolution agreement” was brought before the county’s Board of Ethics for required approval.

Under the deal, Satterberg’s office acknowledged it had violated some ethics rules, mostly for failing to document measures his officials claimed they’d taken to ensure no preferential treatment was given. The office also drafted a new anti-nepotism policy and agreed to undertake officewide training. No employees faced discipline.

But what wasn’t shared with the ethics board before it approved the agreement were records uncovered by the investigation before it was stopped. The investigator’s summary of those records, obtained by The Seattle Times through a public records request, indicates favoritism in personnel matters, or the appearance of it, was more serious than what Satterberg’s office had acknowledged.

The summary showed Satterberg’s office had awarded coveted paid internships in 2018 to his HR director’s stepson, even though multiple other candidates had been recommended before him, and to an initially rejected applicant — the son of a former prominent employee — after a federal judge asked Satterberg to reconsider his candidacy.

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It also revealed both Larson’s son and Parkington-Thal’s stepson had run-ins with the law while assigned to prosecute criminal cases, but neither appeared to face any serious professional consequences. In fact, the office moved the HR director’s stepson into a specially created civil-division internship following his 2018 DUI arrest, then later made a decision not to prosecute him, the records show.

When recently provided a copy of the five-page summary, two ethics board members confirmed they had not seen it before the board approved the agreement. One member called its omission from the panel “troubling.” Another said the agreement with Satterberg’s office “let him off easy.”

In an interview, Ombuds Amy Calderwood said the agreement properly addressed the complaint and met the public’s interests, noting the investigation by then had cost taxpayers $102,000.

She added some of what turned up in the records fell outside the ethics code’s five-year statute of limitations or involved officials, including Satterberg, who weren’t named subjects of the complaint. The ethics board also didn’t ask to see the summary document and when presenting the agreement, her office followed code, she said.

“The language (in the code) isn’t that they get to see everything,” Calderwood said.

Satterberg separately disputed favoritism in his office, saying the interns and employees mentioned in the complaint were hired and advanced based on merit. He added he assumed the board was “given everything” before approving the settlement.

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“They agreed to do it and I thought it was a reasonable thing to do,” Satterberg said. “We’ve moved on. Whatever nepotism that was existing has been gone a long time.”

“Fairness”

A senior deputy prosecutor, whose name is blacked out in public records, filed the ethics complaint on Jan. 15, 2020.

It contended that while Mark Larson oversaw Satterberg’s criminal division, his son, Luke Larson, and daughter-in-law, Michelle Tri Larson, were hired as deputy prosecutors and supervised by those who reported directly to him, violating conflict-of-interest policies on nepotism. Larson’s relatives also were later promoted to senior positions before he retired in December 2019, it said.

The complaint also claimed that Zach Thal, the stepson of Satterberg’s HR director, Parkington-Thal, had received a paid internship in the civil division specially created for him by division chief Kevin Wright.

County ethics policies don’t prohibit relatives from working in the same workplace. But they require measures to address “actual or apparent conflicts of interest,” including barring employees from influencing or participating, “directly or indirectly,” in personnel decisions involving family members.

The sun sets on the Seattle skyline on Oct. 11. (Daniel Kim / The Seattle Times)

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“This issue is not just about fairness in hiring, but the perception of fairness,” the complaint said, adding all involved employees were white and their “positions and promotions should have been available to people of any race and without regard to their familial ties.”

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In separate interviews, Mark, Luke and Michelle Larson each said they recognize some people may have perceived favoritism was at play, but added they’ve tried to address such concerns in their own ways: Mark, by isolating himself from personnel matters; Luke and Michelle by hard work.

“I’ve earned everything that I’ve gotten,” said Michelle Larson. “In reality, you can’t survive in those jobs for a decade if you’re not competent.”

Added Luke Larson: “I know that perception is always going to be there, there’s nothing I can do about that. I’ve just tried really hard to show that I’m representing the people of King County the best that I can.”

An investigation of the ethics complaint was delayed for several months while the whistleblower negotiated an unrelated settlement to end his employment.

In August 2020, Satterberg’s office formally responded to the complaint, denying the allegations. A month later, Scott Missall, a lawyer hired to investigate, requested emails, personnel records and other documents from Satterberg’s office. In December 2020, he received 1,466 pages, some of which appeared to contradict the office’s denials.

Emails and other records dating to 2010 showed Satterberg’s office hadn’t consistently walled off Mark Larson, nor did he always excuse himself, from discussions on personnel matters involving his son and daughter-in-law.

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A letter offering then-26-year-old law student Luke Larson an internship in 2011, for example, showed that Satterberg had instructed him to report to his father on his first day. The next year, when Luke started a full-time job, Mark Larson’s chief deputy arranged an “apparently atypical” meeting for Luke to meet with her and his father upon arrival.

Mark Larson also at times sent, received and was asked for input on emails related to his children’s promotions and pay raises until just before he retired in December 2019, the investigator’s summary shows.

In his interview, Mark Larson said several of the cited records were trivial paperwork. By and large, he said, he excused himself from meaningful personnel issues involving Luke and Michelle, delegating those to his two deputy chiefs or standing committees.

“I am satisfied when it came to any substantive issues,” he said, “I was fully hands off.”

Satterberg separately said the family ties weren’t a secret and his office did take steps to address potential conflicts, but just didn’t document them well. Satterberg also downplayed records that showed otherwise as simple errors.

“Everyone knew who Luke was,” Satterberg said. “He essentially grew up in our office and got hired despite who his father is … We’re lucky to have (Luke and Michelle) in our office.”

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The summary also noted an entry in Luke Larson’s personnel file showing in December 2014, while assigned to prosecute King County District Court cases, he self-reported to Parkington-Thal “that he had shot a young swan by mistake while hunting in Skagit County.”

Parkington-Thal asked Luke “to let [her] know the outcome” of the case, but “there’s no document referencing any follow-up,” the summary says.

Court records show a misdemeanor charge of “taking protected fish/wildlife” was filed in 2015, but later dropped and refiled as an infraction covered by an $87 bail payment.

Luke Larson, who said in his interview he’s an avid duck and goose hunter, acknowledged he mistook the protected swan in foggy weather. After shooting it, he said, he alerted a nearby game warden.

Satterberg and Mark Larson separately said they weren’t aware of the incident. Larson added the lack of consequences for what amounted to an infraction wouldn’t be unusual for any deputy prosecutor.

A year later, one of Mark Larson’s chief deputies offered Luke a District Court management role, saying in an email: “I know it seems early to get a supervising spot but I have no doubt you can pick up this work and help the new deputies.”

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Dan Clark, one of Mark Larson’s top deputies who has since succeeded him as division chief, said there was “never a single whiff of Mark exerting any influence” in such decisions, adding both Luke and Michelle at times received critical evaluations and initially were passed over for senior deputy promotions.

“Old School”

The ethics investigation also found records showing Parkington-Thal directly involved in several personnel matters involving her stepson, Zach Thal.

That included making calls to hiring personnel about his application for a public defense administrative job in 2014; asking Satterberg’s chief of staff to submit his résumé to an outside employer the same year; directly accepting his application for an administrative assistant’s job he later got in 2015; and drafting a letter of recommendation on Satterberg’s official letterhead in 2015 to help Thal get into law school.

“I signed those all the time for anybody who asked,” Satterberg said.

In an email, Parkington-Thal said the office has “made a lot of progress updating our hiring practices.” Zach Thal, who now works in private practice in Kitsap County, declined to comment.

In 2017, when Thal, then a 25-year-old law student, applied for a competitive summer internship, he was placed on a “Not Recommended” list behind at least 19 other candidates ranked in two tiers above him, the summary shows.

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But a few days later, shortly after emails indicate Satterberg discussed Thal’s candidacy with Larson’s chief deputy prosecutor, she sent an announcement that internships had been offered to nine candidates, including Thal.

The office later awarded another 2018 internship to Chris Kranda, an applicant who’d already been rejected, after U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik sent emails that “asked Satterberg to reconsider Kranda,” the summary shows.

In one email, Lasnik told Satterberg “some of the Old School is working on this problem,” and remarked “how the two of them had traded favors regarding past hirings.”

Satterberg later replied: “We had more than 100 applications of summer [internships]. We hired 8, and I plucked Zach out of the pile for my turkey … I’ll have Becky pull the Kranda file and see what we can do.”

Satterberg noted in his interview that, as he once had, Lasnik and Kranda’s father, Michael, had served as chief of staff to the late King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng. He surmised the judge’s “Old School” remark referred to their past roles in the office.

“The unfortunate term `turkey’ is someone you want to sponsor for a candidate,” Satterberg added. He said while he asked his hiring team to interview both Thal and Kranda, “I don’t make the final decisions.”

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In an email, Lasnik said his exchanges with Satterberg involved “nothing nefarious or unseemly.”

Lasnik explained that when he was Maleng’s chief of staff, Maleng asked him “a few times” to interview children of political supporters, judges or elected officials who weren’t recommended by the office’s hiring committee. At Maleng’s direction, the office would hire nonrecommended applicants only if they were “first rate attorneys who can do the job at a high level,” Lasnik said.

“It’s in that context that I contacted Dan about Chris Kranda who did great work as my (unpaid) summer intern the year before after his first year of law school,” Lasnik said. “I thought the Hiring Committee might have missed what made Chris such a strong candidate — and I hoped to speak with them about how my law clerks and I were so impressed with Chris’s work for us.”

Chris Kranda, who later was hired by Satterberg’s office but now works for a private firm in Seattle, declined to comment.

The ombuds’ probe also uncovered emails showing in June 2018, after Thal was assigned to a King County District Court internship, he informed a supervisor and Mark Larson that a state trooper had arrested him for suspicion of driving drunk. Thal admitted he’d had a few drinks earlier that evening, but was released after blood-alcohol tests came in just under the legal limit for impaired driving.

In follow-up emails, Larson “suggests that Thal be moved” from his internship in District Court — where DUIs are prosecuted — “to avoid any conflicts of interest,” the summary says. A few days later, Thal was reassigned to an internship created for him in the civil division.

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About three weeks after his arrest, a King County deputy prosecutor declined to charge Thal, noting in a memo “juries have a hard time convicting a person of DUI” with blood-alcohol tests below the limit.

Asked whether his office should have handled Thal’s charging decision, Satterberg said he wasn’t aware it did, adding: “We would typically ask the city attorney to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

Following Satterberg’s interview, his office provided emails showing that, two days after Thal’s arrest, a senior prosecutor told Mark Larson he was “trying to get a municipality on the east side to take this case on as a conflict.” Meanwhile, a county prosecutor saw the case in a District Court queue, reviewed it and declined to prosecute it, according to a spokesperson for Satterberg.

“It doesn’t appear (the deputy prosecutor) knew Zach was Heidi’s stepson — and she certainly didn’t know that the case was being sent to another office to avoid a conflict of interest,” Satterberg spokesperson Casey McNerthney said. “That was a communication error in our office.”

About a month later, the Bellevue City Attorney’s Office separately reviewed the case and declined to charge Thal for the same reasons, a memo provided by Satterberg’s office shows. The State Patrol said it has no record of ever receiving Bellevue’s decision, however.

After Thal finished his internship, Satterberg’s chief of staff agreed to let him keep working part time during law school, the summary says.

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Concerns

In March 2021, after the ombuds’ investigator requested more records, Satterberg’s office asked to negotiate a settlement. Calderwood agreed to suspend the probe and Missall, the lawyer who investigated the whistleblower’s complaint, wrote up the summary.

Five months later, a proposed early resolution agreement was brought to the ethics board for the first time since the county’s code was changed in 2012 to allow such settlements.

Satterberg’s office acknowledged it had failed to document safeguards against conflicts, and said it would write a new anti-nepotism policy and conduct training.

The agreement didn’t mention most of the details in the investigation’s summary. Unaware of them, two board members still voiced concerns that the resolution seemed too passive and didn’t hold anyone accountable.

Satterberg’s chief of staff, Leesa Manion, responded that Parkington-Thal was “remorseful and embarrassed,” meeting minutes show. She added that Mark Larson already had retired and it would be unfair to punish his son and daughter-in-law “for the mistakes of others.”

She didn’t mention that a year earlier, Satterberg had reappointed Mark Larson to lead prosecution of the first police officer charged with murder under Washington’s new police-accountability legal standards. The office isn’t paying Larson, but covered his annual law license dues.

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The board ultimately voted 3-to-1 to approve the agreement. At the request of board member Michael Blake, Manion agreed to place a copy of it into Parkington-Thal’s personnel file.

In an email, Blake, a University of Washington philosophy professor, said he felt “too much”of the discussion centered on arguments that “the people in question were good people at heart — and not enough about the specifics of their actions, and the rules that should have been followed.”

The fact that the summary’s details “were not provided supports my worries,” he added. ” … Withholding relevant facts does nothing to prevent future, more troubling, actions.”

Thomas Miller, a corporate human resources executive who cast the vote against the agreement, said in an interview he saw “several red flags” indicating it needed more scrutiny. The board’s approval was “the final straw” in his decision to quit what he called “a toothless committee” after 5 1/2 years.

Last month, Calderwood notified Satterberg’s office that a reporter had asked for records about the ethics complaint. Two business days later, Parkington-Thal sent an officewide email presenting the anti-nepotism policy and informing employees about required training.

“We haven’t done a good job of documenting in writing the screening of one family member from another,” said her email, which didn’t mention the complaint or the agreement to resolve it.