The former head of the King County Parks Division said in a whistleblower complaint that County Executive Dow Constantine improperly pressured the agency to cut a lucrative concessions deal with an events company co-owned by his longtime friend and political supporter, Seattle businessman David Meinert.
The deal, inked in 2013, allowed Meinert’s company, Seattle Event Solutions (SES), and its associated promoter, AEG, to take in millions of dollars over six years from events hosted at Marymoor Park, according to the complaint and county financial records.
Over the last two years alone, SES has done more than $2.5 million in food and beverage sales at the Marymoor Park concert series and earned an unknown but significant sum from concessions for Cirque du Soleil performances held at the park.
Constantine, in an interview with The Seattle Times Wednesday, denied that he steered the contract toward SES or pressured the department in any way. He said he wanted to maximize the revenue and impact of the concert series at King County’s most popular park.
Former Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Brown, who led the department from 2006 until just two months ago, wrote in the April 2018 complaint that he was yelled at, bullied, threatened and intimidated for speaking out about the process and that he had feared for his job, according to documents obtained by The Seattle Times through a public-records request.
“In 25 years, this is the only instance where I have been directed to steer a contract to a certain party or have it preapproved by the executive,” he wrote in his whistleblower complaint. “Since I have been Parks Director, I have never had the department or the Executive express any interest or involvement in any contract with the exception of this one involving friends of the Executive.”
Brown is no longer serving as director. He reached a $275,000 settlement with the county that said he would ask to have his retaliation and whistleblower complaints closed, but the King County Ombuds Office has continued to investigate. Brown has been transferred to a less-senior position in the department and the county began advertising to fill his old position in June. Brown did not respond to requests for comment.
Constantine said he was not involved in any of the contract negotiations and called Brown “an employee who had a difference of opinion with his boss and did not communicate it in a timely or effective way.”
“If I knew that Kevin had this misperception, I could have corrected it,” Constantine said. “We wanted him to make the venue successful, nobody cares who pours the beer and wine.”
“To harbor this concern for over half a decade and then express it through an internal employee complaint against multiple people is just not appropriate.”
Constantine also expressed frustration with the county Ombuds Office, which received Brown’s complaint more than 14 months ago but has not yet completed its investigation.
“The fact is the Ombuds is supposed to look at the complaint, determine if it has merit, and in a timely way release their findings and they haven’t done it,” he said, calling for the immediate release of the findings.
The Ombuds office said it has largely completed fact-gathering and anticipates a final report by the beginning of September. The office also warned against drawing early conclusions based solely on the complaint out of fairness to those involved.
Constantine had long enjoyed Meinert’s political support before Meinert was accused by multiple women of rape and sexual assault in 2018, as first reported by KUOW — allegations he has strongly denied. Meinert gave Constantine $5,000 in political donations over the years and also hosted fundraisers for the county executive.
Meinert left SES the same year the allegations became public, and Constantine distanced himself from the businessman, returning or donating the contributions.
Meinert did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday evening.
Aside from politics, the two had been close socially over the years, exchanging casual text messages and meeting as often as weekly. The whistleblower complaint, however, alleged that Constantine used the official powers of his office to give a business boost to Meinert’s company.
The complaint further alleged that this relationship cost the county “hundreds of thousands of dollars” after SES “began to immediately step away” from initial elements of the contract proposal. SES didn’t pay a share of proceeds to the county for a profitable contract with Cirque du Soleil, the complaint said.
Brown wrote that he made his feelings about the contract clear at the time to his superiors. When he ultimately signed the contract, he did it as “Kevin UD Brown” — “UD” standing for “under duress.”
Christie True, director of the county Department of Natural Resources and Parks and Brown’s boss, said he never made his discomfort clear to her.
“I, too, was very surprised to see Kevin’s whistleblower complaint,” True said.
A meeting in Belltown
Brown’s complaint dates back to an event more than six years ago, to a text message he says Constantine sent him on the last night of January 2012. The county executive asked him to meet at a Belltown café and bar owned by Marcus Charles, Meinert’s business partner, to discuss the concert series at Marymoor Park.
When he arrived, the complaint said, Meinert and Charles were introduced as Constantine’s friends. Also present: Constantine’s chief of staff, Sung Yang, and a manager for entertainment behemoth AEG, according to the complaint.
Brown claimed that the group met in a private room to discuss the Marymoor concert series and that Constantine wanted the park’s then-concert promoter, The Lakeside Group, to be replaced by a partnership between AEG and SES, Meinert’s and Charles’ company. Brown said that Constantine directed him to “identify a strategy” to find The Lakeside Group in breach of contract in order to make the switch.
“I never directed them to enter into contracts with these people. I never directed them as to what the contract terms would be, I directed them to make the venue successful,” Constantine said. “The record fully supports that.”
Charles did not respond to requests for comment.
After consulting with the county prosecuting attorney’s office, the parks department decided it would be a legal risk to end The Lakeside Group contract early, and the contract expired as scheduled in 2013, according to the complaint.
But Constantine’s office continued to push Brown’s team to deliver the contract to SES and AEG, the complaint said. When the Marymoor concert series contract with The Lakeside Group expired, Brown said he was directed by Yang and his own supervisor to briefly hold an alternative, truncated request for proposals process that would guarantee that AEG and SES won the deal. Brown said he believed that another company was better suited for the contract.
One other bidder for the Marymoor series did apply for the contract, but in his complaint, Brown wrote that he was told to “score the proposals to ensure AEG/SES was awarded the contract.”
The complaint said that Yang and Brown’s supervisor pushed Brown to conclude that “intangibles” made AEG and SES the best applicants and worthy of the contract, despite parks staff preferring another, smaller bidder.
Yang, who no longer works for the county, said the deal was chosen because AEG was a national promoter, most capable of booking quality shows.
“At no point did I ever direct anybody, anywhere to get to some kind of predetermined outcome,” he said.
Awarding AEG and SES the Marymoor deal brought the county more revenue than it had been getting under its old contract. Parks financial reports show that after AEG and SES were awarded the Marymoor contract, the county’s concert revenues more than tripled by 2015, as AEG booked significantly more concerts than the previous promoter.
After the AEG/SES bid was chosen, however, Brown’s complaint said the county allowed SES to backtrack on elements of the original proposal, costing the parks department hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential revenue.
Early drafts of the agreement, for example, required SES to pay the county 10% of its gross revenue from all events at the site. But the final contract exempted SES from paying the county on the company’s proceeds from 2013 Cirque du Soleil performances. Cirque du Soleil performed at Marymoor Park 10 times a week for nearly two months in 2013, generating roughly twice the revenue for the county as the entire summer concert series.
The county also didn’t collect proceeds that SES failed to pay from the run of Cirque performances in 2015 and 2017, for reasons that remain unclear.
By the time the final contract was signed, Brown said, the county had let SES step back from maintenance and management responsibilities at Clise Mansion, a historic property at the park owned by the county. In 2011, the year before the county began negotiating with SES, Clise brought the county $54,000 in revenue. Since the contract was signed, however, the property has been left vacant, depriving the county of potential revenues, the complaint said.
“I would be treated as insubordinate”
In 2017, when the five-year contract with SES was approaching expiration, Brown said he and his staff began preparing to put the Marymoor contract out for bid. His division reached out to potential bidders, receiving proposals that they thought would bring in more revenue for the county than SES had been bringing in, Brown said.
But soon after, Brown said, multiple members of Constantine’s staff contacted him not to ask about the new bidders, but about SES’s contract “renewal.”
Brown said that True told him “there was no way we could pursue other proposals than what Dow directed” and directed him to develop a request for proposals (RFP) that she and Constantine would preapprove, something Brown said was unprecedented.
True said she became frustrated when she found out Brown had strayed from the RFP process and was soliciting vendors independently.
The county posted an RFP on March 6, 2018. It was canceled less than a week later.
Brown said that True directed him to pull the RFP and simply give SES a one-year contract extension.
True flatly denied that Constantine had directed her to steer the contract toward SES.
“That’s not true,” she said. “I was frustrated with Kevin when I found out he was not following my direction on issuing the RFP.” She said the extension was awarded to SES because under a tight deadline a new vendor would not be able to get a liquor license in time for the summer concerts.
Brown, in his complaint, called the whole ordeal “unbelievably emotional and stressful.”
“It has been made clear to me by my superiors that if I did not do as I was told, I would be treated as insubordinate and could potentially lose my job,” he said in the complaint.
The one-year extension with SES was signed eight days after the RFP was pulled. A new RFP was published last fall. Three companies bid on the Marymoor contract, including SES.
SES won the contract for the third time.