Coroner's office 'whistleblower' files lawsuit

A whistleblower complaint against the Kitsap County Coroner’s office alleging misuse of funds and resources has escalated into a potentially costly situation for taxpayers.

Robert Darin Weaver, 37, of Bremerton, has filed a $1.8 million claim for damages against the county, his former employer, alleging he was penalized for pointing out agency waste and claiming that he was wrongfully accused of theft and other criminal action.

The county, for its part, claims that coroner Greg Sandstrom was justified in dismissing Weaver, whose job performance had been substandard for some time.

Further, the county last week filed a third-degree theft complaint against Weaver for theft of two cellular phones. Weaver’s attorney, Joan Mell, said the phones were missing due to a misunderstanding and they had been returned.

Mell called the criminal charges as “trumped up and frivolous” and claims they were filed in response to Weaver’s whistleblowing, a contention that Kitsap County Prosecuter Russ Hauge calls “nonsense.”

“We review every criminal referral very carefully,” he said. “We are convinced that a crime has been committed and the charge is an appropriate one.”

The claim, filed Nov. 4, represents a 90-day notice of Weaver’s intent, at which time he is allowed to file the suit. Before then, he is to appear next month in front of a Seattle administrative judge about the original allegations.

He also attended a complaint hearing held last Friday, where he appeared with his union representative and presented his case to Sandstrom.

The process requires that Sandstrom consider the material presented at the complaint meeting as possible path to reinstatement. If Sandstrom decides against this offer — he said that he was maintaining an open mind — the next step will be arbitration.

According to Mell, her client would welcome a reinstatement decision. However, they would still need to drop the criminal complaint and make some restitution. “He will have a lot of trouble working in law enforcement as long as he has this hanging over his head,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if he is found guilty or not, the fact that he was ever accused of stealing will damage his reputation.”

Weaver’s original complaint, filed Nov. 13, 2002, claimed he was seeking information about a company called NOMIS and its contract with the county.

He also said the office misused cellular phones and accused his superiors of harassing him once he brought these matters to the attention of his superiors.

Additionally, Weaver alleged improper application of overtime pay, conflict of interest between the coroner and the police department, and faulty reimbursement procedures.

After an investigation, the county commissioners passed judgment on May 20, saying they “did not find sufficient evidence to support your allegations of improper governmental action or retaliation.”

Counter to Weaver’s complaint, the coroner’s office accused him of stealing communications equipment, such as a radio battery and a cell phone. Weaver admits taking the battery but does not characterize it as “stealing.” He did exchange batteries with an identical radio he owned, but returned it when he was asked.

Kitsap Deputy Prosecutor Jacquelyn Aufder-heide, who represents the county in personnel matters, has been the point person for the county for the life of the case.

According to testimony, it was Aufderheide who attempted to “set up” Weaver with the note about the battery.

Aufderheide said that the case has so far consumed “an inordinate amount of time and money” in order to protect the county against Weaver’s charges. This includes the costs of two outside investigators to examine the original allegations as well as the funds needed to pay for an ongoing court case.

Even if the eventual court decision favors the county, it is unlikely it would be able to recover any of these funds, according to Aufderheide.

County Administrator Malcolm Fleming, who declined to comment on the case’s specifics, placed all these expenses in the context of doing business.

“We need to protect the rights of individuals and their right to make complaints,” he said. “If an employee thinks something wrong is going on, it should be investigated properly.”

While Weaver’s whistleblowing efforts have not benefitted him — he lost his job and is now gambling on his future in court — Fleming doesn’t feel that the situation will prevent others from going forward.

“It depends on the merits of the case,” he said. “People win and lose in court every day, and it doesn’t prevent them from going to court.”

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