The Federal Bureau of Investigation has picked up the criminal investigation into actions by the previous administration of the city of Wapato in Yakima County.
In May, the state auditor published eight egregious findings of gross misappropriation of government resources and unlawful activity. They included nepotism-policy violations, ethics violations by former city administrator Juan Orozco, repeated violations of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, misappropriation of government funds and a lack of internal controls over cash receipting and finances that led to a significant decline in the city’s financial stability.
In June, the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office and Prosecuting Attorney launched a joint criminal investigation into the city’s affairs.
On Tuesday, Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Casey Schilperoort said the county is no longer involved with that investigation, having turned it over to the FBI in January.
“The investigation needs to be done thoroughly,” Schilperoort said. “The FBI has more people, expertise and money they can use to investigate all of the allegations.”
Schilperoort said his office turned over allegations to the federal agency regarding “voter fraud, anything to do with money, and records destruction.” The FBI would make the determination if any federal laws were broken.
“It is possible they will wrap them all together for a public corruption case,” he said. “We expect the FBI will give this investigation the attention to detail it deserves and the people of the city of Wapato expect.”
Steve Bernd, spokesperson for the FBI’s Seattle office, wouldn’t comment on the investigation but offered the following statement.
“The FBI has been in contact with the Sheriff’s Office but we can neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation,” he said. “We will continue to work closely with our partners to best serve our communities.”
It would be possible for local agencies to pick up the investigation again should no federal offense be found. But Schilperoort said he hoped that wouldn’t happen.
“Anything is possible with this case,” he said. “We are hoping it does not return to us.”
Yakima Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Brusic said his office is waiting to see whether the federal authorities are able to make a case.
“We are not out of it in terms of involvement, but now it’s in a holding pattern,” he said.
Depending on the FBI’s results, Brusic said his office will determine whether to make a case on a local level about possible crimes committed by the city officials.
“If that time comes, I will re-evaluate and talk with the Yakima Sheriff’s Office about how to move forward,” he said. “Nothing has yet been discussed with me directly.”
Orozco and former Mayor Dora Alvarez-Roa also could not be reached prior to publication of this article.
Allegations of corruption
Orozco first came to power as the city’s mayor in January 2018, following a controversial election that featured high numbers of ballot envelopes and cure forms with signatures that did not match those on the voters’ registration forms. He won the election by four votes.
He resigned at a Sept. 4, 2018, council meeting and was immediately appointed city administrator by Alvarez-Roa, whom the Wapato City Council had appointed to serve as mayor in his stead. The administrator contract, which he helped engineer, carried a $95,000 annual salary originally payable for seven years, even in the event that he was fired.
Orozco resigned on July 19, 2019, as part of a settlement agreement with the state Attorney General’s office, which filed a lawsuit in June, alleging Orozco had used his position to unlawfully enrich himself. He was booked into the Yakima County jail on Aug. 13 on suspected official misconduct but released the next day when a Superior Court judge ruled there was not sufficient evidence in a probable cause affidavit to hold him.
Alvarez-Roa did not advance past the primary, receiving fewer than 8% of votes. Newly elected Mayor Keith Workman, a critic of Orozco and Alvarez-Roa, took office in late November.
The city of Wapato has faced at least 15 civil lawsuits targeting alleged actions of the city officials, including alleged retaliation and harassment, wrongful termination of former employees and public records and Open Meetings Act violations.