A whistleblower investigation that began more than a year ago found “insufficient evidence” to conclude that King County Executive Dow Constantine pressured county staff to grant a lucrative concessions deal to his political supporter, Seattle businessman David Meinert.
But the 76-page report released Wednesday found that the whistleblower, former county Parks Division director Kevin Brown, wasn’t the only parks employee who perceived pressure coming from the top. At least three other employees “perceived the engagement of the Executive staff as signals” to grant the contract, and responded to the pressure, according to the report.
King County paid Brown $275,000 to settle a retaliation claim that he’d been bullied for questioning why a company co-owned by Meinert, Constantine’s longtime friend and donor, was awarded the multimillion-dollar concessions contract at county-owned Marymoor Park in Redmond.
The Ombuds, a county oversight body that investigates ethics complaints, launched the investigation in May 2018 after Brown filed whistleblower complaints against his two supervisors and Constantine.
Constantine, in a prepared statement, said the Ombuds report and recommendations “represent vindication” for him and his staff, and pointed to the increased revenue generated by the concert series.
“In creating this success, the leadership of King County Natural Resources and Parks, my executive staff and I did the right thing, for the right reasons, with the right results, and the report from the King County Ombuds Office confirms that absolutely,” he said.
He criticized the Ombuds office for releasing Brown’s complaint before its report was complete, “painting a false portrait in the media.”
As a result of the investigation, the Ombuds recommended that the county develop policies to guide how the county executive and staff participate in the contracting process. Constantine also proposed legislation last month that would require a more formal bidding process for contracts at Marymoor Park.
“Some sort of relationship there”
Brown, who did not respond to a request for comment, filed his complaint in April 2018. He alleged Constantine and his top aides had pressured him to award the concessions contract at Marymoor Park to Seattle Event Solutions (SES), a company then co-owned by Meinert and his business partner, Marcus Charles.
Meinert and Constantine had known each other since the 1990s, when they worked on political issues related to the Seattle music scene. The two maintained a friendship, but Constantine said they’ve had no contact since 2018, when 11 women accused Meinert of sexual misconduct and assault going back to 2001 — allegations Meinert has denied.
Meinert left SES shortly after the allegations became public. He did not respond to a request for comment.
In a July interview, Constantine said he had not spoken to Meinert since the allegations, and has donated or returned the $5,000 Meinert contributed to Constantine’s campaigns.
Brown’s concerns began in 2012, when Constantine summoned him to a meeting with Meinert, Charles, Constantine’s chief of staff Sung Yang and a manager for entertainment behemoth AEG.
Brown claimed in his complaint that at the meeting Constantine directed him and Yang to “identify a strategy” to find Marymoor Park’s then-concert promoter in breach of contract, so it could be replaced by AEG and SES. Constantine denied directing that the concert promoter be found in breach, and said he didn’t recall specific directives to anyone at the end of the meeting.
Ryan Dotson, a Parks Division staffer who accompanied Brown to the meeting, told investigators he was surprised Constantine and Yang were in attendance.
Dotson said there was a “general vibe” in the room, like there “was some sort of relationship there.” He remembered someone — though he didn’t recall who — discussing the possibility of the former promoter being in breach of contract, and left with the understanding that AEG and SES were interested in taking over the concert series.
Brown and his supervisor later recalled Yang saying “not to speculate over email” about the possibility of a breach of contract, although Yang disputes that, according to the investigation.
The King County prosecutor’s office advised them that terminating the contract early could be risky and the contract was eventually allowed to expire as scheduled.
Contracting through “Big Ideas”
AEG and SES applied to handle concerts and concessions through a parks process called “Big Ideas” — an open call for proposals through a year-round, online portal with no published criteria for specific projects, a looser process than traditional contracting practices.
After the Big Ideas application, AEG and SES were selected to, respectively, put on concerts and sell concessions at Marymoor Park, a deal worth millions of dollars. Constantine’s proposed legislation would ditch the Big Ideas process and require a formal request for proposals before awarding concessions contracts at county parks.
AEG brought in major shows for the concert series, raking in more money for the county than the previous promoter. SES also increased county revenues, paying more than $600,000 to the county between 2013 and 2018 — 10% of its gross revenues from the concert series.
But Brown alleged that after the two companies were chosen, the county allowed SES to backtrack on elements of the proposal, costing the parks department hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential additional revenue.
Brown also claimed that he was pressured into signing the eventual contract with SES. Ultimately, he signed the contract “Kevin UD Brown” — “UD” standing for “under duress.”
Katy Terry, the acting director of the Parks Division, witnessed the signature at Brown’s request, according to the report. She told the Ombuds that she wasn’t “aware of any other situation that’s like this” and that Brown “doesn’t tend to be a grandstander.”
The Ombuds did find that Brown’s supervisor, Bob Burns, directed Brown to sign the contract, but did not conclude that this constituted an abuse of authority or mismanagement.
Burns told the Ombuds that he did this because he considered the deal a good one. The Ombuds found that while Brown had expressed reservations to Burns, he didn’t object on the day of the signing and didn’t explain what “UD” meant.
“A huge player in this city”
There’s little disagreement in the Ombuds’ report that contract negotiations with SES were contentious and that Meinert and Charles had a habit of contacting Constantine’s office directly — including through his personal Gmail address — with requests and complaints.
Yang, Constantine’s chief of staff, told investigators that because of bickering between SES and parks, he saw his participation as a “referee role that I would have to play.” The Ombuds report did not find, however, that AEG and SES were given special treatment.
“At no point did I ever direct anybody, anywhere to get to some kind of predetermined outcome,” Yang said in a July interview with The Seattle Times.
Jessica Emerson, deputy director of the Parks Division, nevertheless told investigators she found it “odd” that Constantine’s office was involved in SES contract negotiations, when it seldom had involvement in other parks contracts.
Emerson felt that Constantine’s office “wants this contract done and we should get it done,” the report says.
“I am only speculating, but I felt like they had a friendship or relationship,” she told investigators. “Dave Meinert is a huge player in this city, or was a huge player in this city, and those kinds of things, you know, those kinds of people get things done, get what they want.”
Dotson viewed the contract as a “no-risk deal” for SES.
“I go back to that first meeting, at the restaurant,” he said. “With the executive and Sung being there, there’s obviously some sort of influence going on, right? Like, at least that was my perception.”
After Brown settled his retaliation claim with the county, he was transferred into a less-senior position within the department as a grants officer. Terry, who took over the Parks Division, said it was very unusual for Constantine’s office to take such an interest in a contract.
“This was clearly all coming through the Exec’s Office,” she said. She called it a “more political contract.”
Despite pressure from SES, however, the county declined many of its requests, including an attempt to extend the contract to 20 years.
The Ombuds pointed to Constantine’s longstanding interest in the local music scene and his vision for Marymoor Park as a “reasonable explanation” for his involvement in the concerts.
Last fall, the county requested proposals for a new Marymoor Park concessions contract. SES was chosen from among three bidders.