Medina Police Chief Jeff Chen Wants His Job Back

City Hall squabbles are part of the fabric of Bill Gates' hometown.

As Bill Gates' police chief, Jeff Chen spent his days driving the mean streets—well, the kindly country lanes—of wealthy Medina in his big Chevy Tahoe, protecting the rich and coddling the famous. That could explain the four machine guns. Nobody in the nine-person Medina Police Department was trained to use them. But Chief Chen thought they were right for his tiny (pop. 3,000) town, necessary for the "defense of the city," as he puts it. "Due to the caliber of the residents in our community," he says, "we are a high-risk target." In recent years, Chinese President Hu Jintao has dropped by Gates' 48,000-square-foot Lake Washington abode for dinner, and Bono recently spent a night at the billionaire's pad between U2 concerts. George W. Bush came by for a couple of fund-raisers, one at the waterfront home of cell-phone tycoon Craig McCaw in neighboring Hunts Point, which contracts with Medina for police services. Michelle Obama showed up for lunch last year at the Medina mansion of Costco co-founder Jeff Brotman, and Bill Clinton has been a regular on the Medina/Hunts Point Gold Coast, dotted with Forbes 400 members, including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Incorporated in 1955 and named for the holy Saudi Arabian "radiant city" of Medina—whose entry is restricted to Muslims only—the Eastside town, despite appearances, doesn't exclusively comprise white multimillionaires. Medina is 12 percent Asian and three percent Latino. The 2010 census also lists one black household. What's more, Ichiro lives there. He and the other moneybags helped push Medina's average household income to $170,000 (compared to $67,000 county-wide). As a minority, Chief Chen says there has been only the occasional awkward moment for him, such as when a white town official asked him if "his people" celebrated Thanksgiving. In his coal-black uniform and gold badge, Chen has won praise in his seven years as chief of the enclave, despite an inauspicious start. When Chen left the Seattle Police Department after 13 years as patrol officer and detective to become a Medina police captain in 2001, he was being questioned about billing SPD for a $382 hotel room that had been comped to him. The probe was dropped after he departed, and was one of the few smudges on Chen's otherwise spotless career record. In 2007, Chen scored extra points after Medina leaders approved installation of a town-wide security-camera system. It scans the license plates of incoming vehicles, filtering the numbers through police and motor-vehicle databases to identify owners and discover any outstanding violations. The ACLU complained about privacy invasion, and Chen took some heat for making a side deal with Craig McCaw's Clearwire Corp. to install a wireless broadcast tower disguised as the City Hall flagpole—needed to aid the security-camera system, Chen said. The tower, while built at no cost to the city, was also erected without permits. But Chen brushed off critics, including those who said Clearwire benefited from its customers' use of the tower for high-speed Internet service. What mattered more to the locals was security, and Chen was getting that job done. Thanks to the Big Brother camera system and a community prone to report "suspicious" newcomers, crime has no rate in Medina. There was one assault last year, along with one drug violation. Among the roughly 1,100 households, there were nine burglaries or attempts, and one car theft. Most important, there were no rapes, robberies, or any kind of violent crime last year. The annual police crime report doesn't even bother to include a line for homicide. It's been even quieter this year: The report for April lists zero for every crime category. Medina was Nirvana—a town where absolutely nothing bad seemed to happen. Then came the bloodcurdling screams—from Chen's admirers. Their chief, they learned, had lost his job. Chen says he was forced to resign by City Manager Donna Hanson, who says he submitted his resignation unprompted. What has now become a half-year battle royale over who did what and why began in December, when the 49-year-old Chen tendered his resignation and rescinded it six days later, only to be put on paid leave by Hanson. The two were joined by townsfolk in a war of words that has only grown louder, with Chen and Hanson publicly airing dirty laundry and privately calling each other liars. Things came to a head last week when Chen took a preliminary step toward a lawsuit by filing a $14 million claim against the City of Medina, alleging, among other things, defamation and racial discrimination. Despite what they've recently learned about the chief—that he allegedly lied to a city official, misused city funds, and secretly wrote memos under some of his officers' names to quash tickets and purchase equipment—Chen's backers have rallied to his side. "They're calling us the angry housewives. Even if we are, [City Hall had] better take us seriously," says Chen supporter Laura Weingaertner, a Medina Parks Board member and co-president of the local PTA, who describes the chief as "a great guy" and "a real cop" who "cares about the residents." Nonetheless, Chen's been replaced by his #2 man, whom he appointed and who now questions the chief's integrity. In return, Chen portrays the new chief, Dan Yourkoski, as a selfish backstabber who ran his pay up to $170,000 one year with overtime. Yourkoski says that's untrue. It was $180,000. And the chief approved it all.  Medina—or Medeena, as it was once spelled—was nothing but farmland in the early 1900s, providing produce for Seattle's Pike Place Market. Then served by a ferry from Leschi, Medina has since resisted commercial development despite the Eastside population boom that followed the 1940 opening of the Mercer Island floating bridge. Today—with its high hedges, gated entries, towering evergreens, and pathways rather than sidewalks—Medina stretches 4.8 square miles around a private golf course on the east to the secluded lakefront on the west. Its downtown consists of a small brick post office and the nearby Medina Grocery on the main drag, Evergreen Point Way. The century-old store dates to 1908; it was torn down in 2005 and rebuilt in 2008 to look like the original, following a court battle over historical restoration and building permits. Long before Gates arrived, mega-mansions consumed block-long plots of shoreline—like the 23-room home of Peter La Haye, the late inventor of the cataract lens. He put his manse, then one of the country's priciest homes, on the market for $45 million in the 1990s because, he said, "Nobody needs a house this size." Michael Mastro also moved out of his $15 million Medina shoreline mansion, but the sale last year was court-ordered to help pay the real-estate mogul's debt, roughly $570 million—the state's largest bankruptcy ever. His riches-to-rags tale grew out of the 2008 real estate–market collapse, leading to state accusations he misled his investors and, now, to a federal investigation for possible securities violations. Nonetheless, last summer, he was still vacationing in Paris and making $8,000 monthly payments on a Rolls-Royce and a Bentley. Being rich is a hard habit to break. Meanwhile, Chen's supporters say the chief brought a higher level of professionalism to a small department, where, back in the 1990s, an officer sued the city (and lost), claiming he was wrongly suspended for giving Gates a speeding ticket. Chen himself wasn't above fixing a speeding ticket now and then, a favor that the confident chief, broad-shouldered and bespectacled, insisted was "within my purview." Medina is funny like that, says the town's former chief, Joe Race. He remembers being badgered to fix tickets and do favors for the rich when he held the post from 1990 to 1997. "It's a beautiful place with some very wonderful people," he recalled in a recent e-mail from Saipan, where he lives and authors crime-fiction books, among other activities. "That said, my tenure in Medina was about the most frustrating of my police experience." Race, who has been a cop in Los Angeles, a police instructor in Kosovo and Bosnia, and police chief of Micronesia, says Medina cops were sometimes seen as the town's errand boys. "The department often got requests like 'UPS is coming by today—can you sign for my package?' or 'I got this ticket in Tacoma, can you take care of it for me?' " Medina's finest also responded to complaints about raccoons eating from a dog's dish and Canada geese frolicking in a swimming pool, Race recalls. In fairness, all chiefs are bombarded with silly requests, Race points out, but Medina had an excessive share of "spoiled brats" and "jerks," he says. "I don't know Jeff," he says of Chen. "But I can just imagine what he's going through." As if his on-the-job challenges weren't enough, Chen was also slogging through a nasty divorce last year in King County Superior Court. After he split with his wife of 21 years, he learned she'd been involved with a member of the outlaw Bandidos motorcycle gang (see "Bad Boys," SW, July 12, 2006), he told the court. He was concerned for his safety and that of his four children, he said, since, "as everyone knows, incidents of shootings of police officers have been on the rise in this state." Chen said his wife also sent what he considered pornographic pictures of herself over the Internet using his police-department laptop without his permission, and posted online photos of herself in lingerie. He told the court that, having once been a detective sergeant of Seattle vice, "When I found out about this, I was deeply disturbed." The court, finalizing the divorce last December, awarded primary custody of the children to Chen.  Hoping in part to quiet Chen's supporters, city manager Hanson brought in an outside private investigator, who in March produced a 106-page report on the chief's activities. That was followed by a 51-page rebuttal by Chen in April. At the end of that month, Hanson drew up a bill of goods against Chen, officially showing him the door. In a three-page letter, she outlined the charges behind his dismissal, among them: —Chen "intentionally made materially false statements and fabricated information" during a preliminary investigation into the chief's "unauthorized access" into a secured city e-mail storage system, which led to a broader investigation in which he made similarly false statements. He also allegedly lied about being forced to resign. (In his rebuttal, Chen says he properly accessed the e-mail, did not lie about it, and stands by his version of the resignation.) —The broader investigation determined that Chen "forged memoranda under the names of your subordinate employees" that led to fixing tickets of local residents in at least several known instances. The officers who wrote the tickets had been unaware Chen had drawn up ticket-rescinding memos in their names and then signed his name to approve them. Chen also wrote purchase requests for equipment in other officers' names, then signed them. (Chen admits to creating the memos and signing them, but says he had the authority to do so and violated no rules.) —Chen made "numerous expenditures of City funds that are either unaccounted for or were improper." They included gas for the Tahoe, which accounted for 25 percent of the department's gas bill; three iPod Touch handhelds; two "test" police jackets; and two automatic knives. (Chen disputes the claims, although some of the items—including the jackets and knives, which Chen said he had stored in an "emergency preparedness bag" at his Seattle home—were missing from the department. Chen returned them in April after he was interviewed by the investigator.) In her lengthy report, the workplace investigator, Bellevue attorney Ellen Lenhart, recounted the events of December 17, when, Chen says, he was forced to resign. Hanson says Chen did so on his own, kicking off the brouhaha. Chen, in his rebuttal, recalls Hanson sitting in her office, telling him to resign or she might fire him. That came after they got into a disagreement over Chen's accessing the secured e-mail system, which consists of public records anyway. Chen says he scribbled a resignation letter after Hanson said she could fire him. Afterward, he went to his office, got his stuff, and returned, handing his badges and keys to Hanson. Chen issued a statement saying he was seeking new opportunities, but a week later withdrew his resignation, returning to the department and announcing he was in charge again. Hanson then put him on paid leave, and Chen undertook a campaign to get his job back, announcing in a letter to the city council that he'd been forced out by Hanson. Hanson, who says she had no intention of firing Chen over the e-mail issue, recalls the chief resigning on the spot in December, turning in his badges and keys, and walking out. His version is untrue, she says, since he couldn't have returned to his always-locked office for his badges and keys because she already had them. The distinction is important in determining the police chief's veracity, she says. Investigator Lenhart found Hanson's version "more persuasive," concluding in her probe that "Chief Chen not only voluntarily resigned, but planned to do so in advance of his meeting with Mrs. Hanson." The "cumulative substance" of witnesses and evidence, Lenhart added, "contradicts Chief Chen's version of the facts." Though most city officials and council members have declined to comment in anticipation of potential litigation, Hanson tells Seattle Weekly: "Chief Chen walked in with his envelope, keys and badges, and a letter of resignation he had already drawn up. I did not threaten to fire him." In his resignation letter, Chen gave two weeks' notice and wished Hanson and the city "the best in the future," adding, "I have chosen another opportunity to finish my working career." Hanson says she didn't go looking for this fight, despite Chen's claims that the city manager was targeting him. ("It was not an exaggeration that she was out to have me removed," he says in his rebuttal.) "We had a third-party outside investigator whose report was backed up by considerable documentation," says Hanson, "and it was my job to act on the info I had. I feel I did the right thing." Hanson is now seeking applicants for the chief's job, which pays up to $116,000 annually. Chen, currently working as a private investigator, didn't want to discuss the dispute because he may take it to court, especially now that he's filed his claim against the city. He also turned down an offer to answer written questions, but did state in an e-mail to Seattle Weekly, "As I have said publicly, I hold no remorse or regret. I am a professional and have always conducted myself as such. If afforded the opportunity to return to my former post, I would discharge my office with the utmost professionalism and integrity as I always have." He and his family are "coping as well as can be expected," he added, and he's keeping his "future work options open." His attorney, Marianne Jones of Bellevue, calls the investigator's report "a piece of garbage." Still, while Chen would like his job back, Jones says, he is willing to walk away with a settlement. An offer from Chen is on the table, seeking a half-year's pay and $25,000 in legal fees, but it hasn't been accepted. "Unless we can come up with some resolution the council is willing to look at," says Jones, "litigation is the only option." City Hall clearly wants Chen to go away. A majority of the seven city council members have lined up against him, standing fast even when faced with an estimated 150 of Chen's rowdy supporters at a five-hour meeting on June 13. There, Chen took the microphone and, wagging his finger in the air, said, "I've done nothing immoral, nothing unethical, nothing illegal," and added that he wanted his job back. The turnout at the meeting was indicative of Chen's wide support in the community. Almost 500 people have signed two petitions, one of them online, to "Bring Back Chief Chen," as Laura Weingaertner named the campaign. "There are some very important names on the lists," says Weingaertner, who, as one of the Concerned Citizens of Medina and Hunts Point, created the online petition and has helped the group produce six issues of an Internet newsletter backing Chen. Traditionally, Medina's rich and famous don't get involved in town politics, save for the time a few years back when the council was considering restrictions on mega-mansions, and representatives of Jeff Bezos and Jeff Brotman showed up to protest. But scattered among the pro-Chen petitions are such old-line Seattle-area names as Nordstrom, Pigott, Clise, and McCaw. "They're as disappointed as anyone about the loss of our chief," says Weingaertner. "We aren't going to sit back and watch him get mistreated; he doesn't deserve this." Rather, many petition signers want city manager Hanson, hired in 2008, to be fired instead. To that end, in January the council discussed—then rejected by voice vote—firing Hanson. She has so far escaped the fate of her two predecessors, Doug Schulze and Mark Weinberg, who resigned after weary battles with the council and contentious citizens. Both complained that civic disputes, such as whether or not to leave the county library system, tended to end up as personal vendettas, and Weinberg described Medina as "inhospitable and rapidly becoming untenable" in The Seattle Times when he resigned as city manager in 2008, having served barely a year. Some online petitioners worry that crime may increase without their chief around. "Medina and Hunts Point are just NOT as safe anymore," one complains. Others don't think much of the investigator's report, claiming that it turned up, at best, "a few minor irregularities in Chief Chen's long and distinguished career." Weingaertner thinks Chen's replacement, Yourkoski, would likely be willing to step aside if Chen returns. Chen's attorney, Jones, agrees: "We hear if Jeff comes back, Dan has said they can find a way to work together." Like Stalin and Trotsky, maybe.  Lieutenant Yourkoski is sitting inside a double-wide trailer that is the temporary home of the Medina Police Department while the old City Hall, down on the lakefront, is undergoing a complete renovation and expansion. (Other city offices are in an adjoining modular unit in the parking lot of St. Thomas Church and School, next to Overlake Golf & Country Club.) Yourkoski prefers his desk to Chen's office, which has remained empty since his December departure—although Chen's name still appears on reports, letterheads, and a departmental answering machine that tells callers what number to press to "leave a message for Chief Chen." Well-built, with a flat-top haircut, the 39-year-old Yourkoski smiles when asked why Chief Chen thought Medina needed four machine guns to protect the community. "I don't know," he says, shrugging. The weapons are locked up, having been fired a few times. "But none of us know how to use them," he adds. Besides two full-time office workers, Yourkoski commands six officers. There are two vacancies: for an officer and a chief. None of his officers live in Medina, Yourkoski says. A starting officer makes $60,000 a year in a town where the median price for a home is around $2 million. Yourkoski, who lives in the Kirkland area, can't afford Medina either, he says, even though he made $180,000—more than Chen—one recent year. That included about $25,000 in back overtime pay as well as overtime for that year, a good part of it the result of chasing down drunk drivers entering Medina off the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge from Seattle. Chen brought that up in his 51-page rebuttal, in which, Yourkoski says, the chief pissed off just about everybody in the department while trying to defend himself. If Chen returned to his old job, Yourkoski says, "I'll be gone, and so will most of the officers, I think." Yourkoski issued a department announcement when Chen left in December, calling him "the cornerstone" of the department and wishing "the very best for his future." But the lieutenant's views changed after the investigation revealed that Chen was signing memos he'd secretly issued under officers' names. Chen compounded those hard feelings with negative comments about Yourkoski in his rebuttal. Other officers told the investigator they were surprised and disappointed to learn of Chen's practices and criticisms, and city manager Hanson called Chen's memo-writing "one of the most serious issues," resulting in the loss of his department's confidence. In a statement made to the investigator, Yourkoski recounted a tense scene on December 27, when Chen decided to rescind his resignation and marched into the police trailer. He said he was back in charge and seemed agitated, said Yourkoski, who'd just been summarily demoted from acting chief. Chen asked the lieutenant for the key to the Tahoe and an update on all activities. "He got closer to me to the point where it seemed we were standing toe-to-toe," Yourkoski recalled. "I felt extremely uncomfortable. I finally turned my head to the right and was no longer looking at him. He asked me what I had talked to the city manager about the day before. I told him I didn't think I could answer that. Very condescendingly he said, 'It's hard to remember, isn't it?' He became more and more angry, demanding that I look at him." The lieutenant tried to explain that he felt he no longer worked for Chen. "He said, 'Then why are you calling me "Sir" and why did you give me access to weapons?' I said 'I don't know,' and he just shook his head and had a look of disgust on his face, and just turned around and went back into his office." Officer Jim Martin told the investigator that Chen voided a traffic ticket he had given to a Medina man, the spouse of an unnamed city council candidate, for speeding. The man, said Martin, got out of his car and threw up his hands, seeming perturbed. "Talk to Jeff," the man told Martin. "I know Jeff. I need to be somewhere. I don't have time for this." Martin wrote the ticket anyway, but Chen later voided it. On another occasion, Chen told Martin to void a ticket for "humanitarian reasons," the officer said, telling Martin the woman had just gotten out of the hospital. He didn't void it, but Chen did, according to the investigation, which did not determine the precise number of tickets cancelled by the chief. Chen voided at least one other ticket, handed out by officer Mike Girias, who told the investigator, "It is frequent for people, when they are pulled over, to tell me they will be speaking to Chief Chen about the ticket. My response is always 'That is your right.' " Sgt. John Kane said the chief apparently voided at least one of his tickets—"I have no knowledge of what happened to it," he says—and typed his name on a request to purchase three iPod Touches for $1,400. "I did not write this memo," said Kane, having learned about it from the investigation. "I did not think the iPod Touches were worthwhile purchases," he added. In his rebuttal, Chen takes exception to the officers' statements, arguing he had the authority to act as he wished and asserting that issuing memos under others' names was "common business practice in police departments." He defines the process as a bookkeeping tactic, saying that, in addition to signing the memos, he typed officers' names into the "From" line to void tickets "so I could easily identify which officer wrote the ticket." These were intended merely as "internal documents for the Records Manager," he said. "What happened is someone has assumed that memos are scribed by the person" named in the "From" line, "but that is not true in many circumstances." Yourkoski says such memos aren't common practice, and has no plans to mimic his former boss' ways. Other officers thought, according to investigator Lenhart's report, "that Chief Chen has gone behind their backs in some instances" and that his methods were "indefensible." In his rebuttal letter, Chen saved his best shots for Yourkoski, describing him as "an ambitious fellow who is driven by his earnings." Chen said his second-in-command made more money than the chief the past four years, in part by "arresting drunk drivers to increase his compensated court overtime." Chen adds: "I have not witnessed a great deal of loyalty to fellow officers, but I have witnessed a consistent desire to increase his paycheck." In another passage, Chen observed: "In this small department, there is never much opportunity for upward mobility. The group frenzy or mob mentality that occurs when people smell blood in the water is a known phenomenon. Lt. Yourkoski has always been driven by his own selfish motivations and has a track record of insubordinate behavior which has not gone unchecked by me. Now Lt. Yourkoski has an opportunity to retaliate against my past actions as the Chief of Police in his attempt to garner the job for himself." What Chen doesn't realize, says Yourkoski, an 11-year veteran who has an accounting degree and previously worked for the state gambling commission, is that "I have no interest in applying for the chief's job." For one, it doesn't pay as well as his former position, Yourkoski says. For another, "I like patrol and investigations," Yourkoski says. "I don't like management." "What this all comes down to is the chief's integrity," adds Yourkoski. "Let's just say we're disappointed."  Chen's supporters expect him to return to City Hall to push for his rehiring or, failing that, the settlement offer. And given Chen's recent claim filing, the saga could also end up in court, where the investigation and rebuttal will come to life, under oath. Some Medinans think they know how it will turn out. They've seen this morality play before: In 1992, city manager Pat Dodge tried to fire Chief Race for breaking 15 administrative rules. Race was placed on leave, the community chose sides, and hundreds of people packed public meetings. Then as now, there was widespread support for retaining the chief and firing the city manager. Ultimately, Dodge was fired, and Race served five more years. Chen, Race says in his e-mail from paradise, will have to decide whether or not to fight on. But the old ex-chief thinks the new ex-chief "would be ahead for his health, and his family's well-being, to make a settlement, and 'get out of Dodge.' " At least it would be better, Race adds, than fielding such urgent calls for assistance as "Please take my trash out on Wednesday because I'll be hunting in Mexico." randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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