Former Deputy Brian Barnes, now a police officer on the East Coast, says a settlement that King County paid him was designed to muzzle his attempts to expose wrongdoing within the Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff John Urquhart and the county deny the claims.
Two years ago, King County paid an outspoken sheriff’s deputy more than $160,000 in cash, legal costs and back pay as part of an unusual settlement that was structured in a way that it did not receive the required level of scrutiny for a settlement of that amount.
Officials say the settlement payout — brokered by the county’s risk managers, lawyers and Sheriff’s Office — was aimed at removing a troublesome deputy, prone to insubordination and unwarranted attacks on his superiors, to ensure he would never again work for King County.
Brian Barnes, the former deputy who is now a police officer in Massachusetts, says the deal sought to muzzle his attempts to expose wrongdoing within the Sheriff’s Office.
Whichever the case, county negotiators failed to seek required approval from King County Executive Dow Constantine, despite agreeing to pay the deputy an amount well above the $100,000 threshold that required the executive’s permission.
Instead, the county’s negotiators broke up the payout into several payments, none of which individually exceeded the threshold — and mistakenly overpaid the deputy $27,000.
Details of the deputy’s settlement have emerged as Sheriff John Urquhart, who is seeking to retain his seat in next week’s election, has faced increasing scrutiny of his management style and a variety of accusations by current and former deputies.
In September, Barnes filed a complaint with the Sheriff’s Office accusing Urquhart of inappropriately touching him during an unwanted sexual advance three years ago. The Sheriff’s Office later referred the matter to Renton police.
Renton police said Tuesday they have launched a sexual-assault criminal investigation of Urquhart and will forward their findings to a prosecutor for a filing decision when the investigation is complete. A department spokesman said the department expects to wrap up the probe within a week.
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Urquhart vehemently denies Barnes’ allegations, calling them “despicable” and politically motivated lies.
On Monday, a judge separately issued a temporary restraining order against Urquhart filed by a female ex-deputy who accused him of raping her in 2002. Urquhart has denied that allegation, and Seattle police cleared him of criminal charges this year. In her request for the order, the woman alleged that Urquhart’s political campaign offered to share her medical records with at least one group considering whether to endorse Urquhart for re-election.
The sheriff, who has fired more than 20 deputies and prides himself as a hard-line disciplinarian, said he was poised in April 2015 to fire Barnes for dishonesty and other misconduct, but agreed instead to negotiate a resignation “to make it stick.”
The settlement, signed off on in May 2015, kept Barnes employed through mid-October of that year, allowing him to attain nine full years on the job. Urquhart also signed a reference letter to help Barnes land a new police job.
Barnes, in turn, agreed to drop his complaints against the sheriff and his top aides, and not to pursue any future claims against or employment with King County. As part of the deal, both sides agreed not to talk with the media about the settlement or publicly disparage one another.
Under the deal’s terms, Barnes’ departure was deemed a “voluntary resignation,” and Urquhart was not supposed to “render any findings or other determination” on any allegations made against the deputy.
But the Sheriff’s Office notified King County prosecutors in late May 2016 — more than a year after the settlement — that dishonesty allegations had been sustained against Barnes, and reported that he “was terminated” amid a settlement, according to the prosecutor’s office. That notification prompted Barnes’ name to be added to the prosecutor’s so-called “Brady List” — a record kept of officers with credibility problems.
“He violated the agreement,” Barnes said. “Why would he do that? I live 3,000 miles away now and I don’t work for him. So obviously, he was trying to brand me as not credible for a reason. He knew that this all might come back on him.”
A spokeswoman for Urquhart said this week the department’s internal-affairs commander notified the prosecutor’s office of the dishonesty case as required by Sheriff’s Office policy.
Jennifer Hills, King County’s risk-management director, acknowledged in an email last month that her office, and Mark Stockdale, the civil prosecuting attorney who advised her, mistakenly believed they could break out a $10,000 payment for the deputy’s legal costs. They should have gotten Constantine’s approval, she said.
“Risk Management did not send this settlement to the Executive’s Office for review as required,” added Alex Fryer, a spokesman for Constantine. “We fully expect Risk Management will continue to notify the Executive’s Office on proposed settlements.”
Along with the check made out to Barnes’ attorney, the settlement included a lump-sum payment of $100,000 to Barnes; an additional $8,461 to cover his health-care premiums; and nearly $42,000 to cover the time he spent on administrative leave from November 25, 2014, through July 31, 2015.
Not only did the settlement avoid the required executive oversight, the county also overpaid the deputy nearly $27,000, interviews and records show.
Barnes, who already has repaid $10,000 and has agreed to reimburse the county for the rest by year’s end, contends the settlement was intentionally structured to skirt Constantine’s approval.
“Urquhart told me he was not going to send it up to the executive, that he would work with me to find the additional money for my health care and other stuff from other funds,” he said. “As far as I was concerned, this was hush money.”
Urquhart and Hills dispute Barnes’ allegation that they intentionally sought to skirt the law.
In a recent interview with The Seattle Times, the sheriff denied knowing the details of the county law requiring executive approval for settlements above $100,000.
“I have attorneys for a good reason: To advise me,” he said. “They advised me this was OK. They negotiated this. Alright? It’s just as simple as that. So don’t be questioning me about whether I read a law or not.”
But during a sworn deposition as part of an unrelated lawsuit last year, Urquhart acknowledged the settlement was of an amount that required the executive’s approval. He also denied personally signing the agreement or authorizing it — even though the settlement document bears his signature.
Before their falling-out, Barnes and Urquhart were friends. In late 2012, Barnes donated money to Urquhart’s bid for sheriff and volunteered his home for the setting of a campaign commercial.
Barnes was outspoken, often complaining about perceived problems in the department and criticizing superiors. He’d previously received an $86,000 settlement after formally complaining in 2012 that his supervisors drummed up a misconduct case against him partly because he was gay. An ombudsman’s investigation later found no “corruption and bad acts” by supervisors, as the deputy alleged, and noted other deputies viewed Barnes “as turning hostile against those who criticize him.”
But Barnes also had earned multiple commendations and awards for his police work, and he won praise from Urquhart and his chief of staff, Chris Barringer, records show.
By the second half of 2014, however, both sides were accusing each other of wrongdoing.
Urquhart’s hostility toward him, Barnes now contends, partly stems from a March 2014 dinner meeting at a Renton restaurant where the former deputy said he raised concerns about his supervisors.
After dinner, the deputy said the two walked to the parking lot together and Urquhart told him not to file a complaint or worry about his supervisors. Then, the deputy contends, Urquhart made a pass and fondled him.
“I was just, ‘Whoa, what are you doing? Stop it!’ and I kind of pushed his hands away,” Barnes said in a recent interview.
A few days after the dinner meeting, Barnes filed a complaint contending his supervisors had targeted him for being gay. The deputy never brought up the groping allegation against Urquhart in that complaint or in subsequent allegations and internal-affairs interviews, records show.
“I felt ashamed,” Barnes said. “I’m a very private person. I hadn’t told anyone then, and it was embarrassing to me.”
On Monday, Urquhart’s private lawyer presented a 15-page letter to The Seattle Times contending “essentially nothing Mr. Barnes has told you is true” and provided a summary of incidents dating back 15 years.
Attorney Jeffrey Tilden’s letter added Barnes has “a habit and practice of targeting superiors with false complaints,” including accusing two other elected officials of criminal conduct “just prior to an election.”
“None of Mr. Barnes’ complaints has ever been vindicated by the review process,” the letter said. “We strongly suggest you do not publish Mr. Barnes’ falsities.”
In response to the alleged incident at the diner, the letter stated: “What are the odds this happened, in the abstract? A sitting sheriff and a deputy, in full police regalia — guns and Tasers — exit a Renton diner and one gropes the other? Is this how most sexual overtures occur?”
The letter noted a series of texts Barnes sent to Barringer, the chief of staff, after dinner saying the meeting with the sheriff went well. “He’s a good man,” Barnes texted, according to the letter.
Barnes told The Times he was fearful of telling Urquhart’s right-hand man about the incident.
In November 2014, investigators for the county found Barnes’ earlier complaints unsubstantiated. Meantime, the Sheriff’s Office opened several misconduct investigations against him, accusing Barnes of insubordination and dishonesty.
Barnes was placed on administrative leave on Nov. 25, 2014 — nine days after he emailed a county lawyer about allegations the sheriff had an improper affair with a former female deputy whom Urquhart once supervised. That woman is the same one who accused Urquhart of raping her in 2002.
In May 2015, Urquhart and the county negotiated the deal with Barnes.
Urquhart described Barnes as “an organizational terrorist” who has habitually targeted supervisors he perceives to have crossed him. In addition to the letter from Urquhart’s attorney on Monday, the sheriff handed over a stack of records last month to The Times to illustrate that the deputy has harassed or made complaints against more than 30 people, with incidents dating back to 2003, about three years before he was hired at the Sheriff’s Office.
“I’m a nonviolent person,” Barnes said in response to Urquhart’s characterization. “I think the sheriff ought to look inside himself before he points the finger at other people.”
Urquhart said he plans to sue Barnes for defamation, and accused Barnes of concocting lies that are “purely political and purely evil.”
“The allegations made against me by Barnes are a blatant and egregious attempt to derail my efforts to be re-elected as Sheriff,” Urquhart wrote in response to questions posed by The Times. “He is actively coordinating with my opponent’s campaign and has timed the allegations to ‘hit’ the press as close to the drop of ballots as possible.”
Mitzi Johanknecht, the sheriff’s challenger in the coming election, denied Urquhart’s assertions she is working with Barnes.
Barnes acknowledged contributing $200 to Johanknecht’s campaign on May 11. However, he said he doesn’t know her well and denied “making up a criminal complaint for someone to win or lose an election.”
Barnes also provided an email to The Times indicating he disclosed his allegation to a U.S. Justice Department official on May 3. That was before Johanknecht announced her candidacy, but after she registered as a candidate on April 28.
Information in this article, originally published Nov. 1, 2017, was corrected Nov. 1, 2017. Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story gave an incorrect account of when text messages were sent between Brian Barnes and Chris Berringer.