Photo courtesy of John Urquhart for Sheriff

Urquhart Supporters Say He’s a Strong Leader. Critics Say He’s a Vindictive One

Are the lawsuits against the sheriff red flags, or sour grapes?

A prominent Democratic official. A re-election campaign. And reams of court documents, filed by lawyers with the Connelly Law Offices, airing all sorts of (alleged) dirty laundry.

This could be Mayor Ed Murray we’re talking about. But it could also be Sheriff John Urquhart. In two weeks, two lawsuits were filed against the lawman, both alleging gender discrimination and retaliation by deputies who were either dismissed or disciplined by the Sheriff’s Office. Those lawsuits come in addition to a previous lawsuit, making similar claims, that was settled earlier this year for $1.35 million. In every case, the lawyers representing the plaintiffs have been from Connelly Law, the firm representing the man who claims Murray sexually abused him in the 1980s. Also similar to Murray’s case, Urquhart’s supporters suggest that the lawsuits derive not from actual misconduct, but are the doing of an aggressive law firm well-practiced at putting the squeeze on elected officials.

That’s where the similarities end, though. While Murray dropped out of his re-election campaign so that the lawsuit wouldn’t prove a distraction in the race, Urquhart is going full steam ahead in his pursuit of a second full term. As such, the lawsuits will likely be a central theme in the campaign and force voters to decide whether Urquhart is a strong leader who holds his deputies accountable, as his supporters insist, or a power-hungry one who uses discipline to silence his critics, as the lawsuits allege.

Urquhart drew one opponent this year, King County Sheriff Major Mitzi Johanknecht, who commands the King County Sheriff Department’s Southwest Precinct. While Johankecht is viewed as a serious candidate, Urquhart so far enjoys a sizable fundraising lead and has a considerable roster of endorsements, including from the King County Democrats. But that’s not to say the three suits haven’t drawn any blood or produced bad headlines.

Their details vary, but the general theme is that Urquhart has used his position in the department—as sheriff and before that in various other leadership positions—to create a discriminatory and sexist atmosphere. The most recent suit, brought by 24-year department veteran Mary Syson, claims that Urquhart assigned her a new supervisor in 2014 who proceeded to berate her work performance and give her poor performance evaluations—after a career of receiving high marks. Syson says the harassment is not a coincidence: She worked under Urquhart when he was a sergeant in the Southwest precinct in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and filed a complaint against him at that time for creating a hostile work environment for the female deputies under him. During Urquhart’s 2013 campaign, Syson spoke out against his candidacy in The Seattle Times; she told the paper that she wanted to come forward so “the taxpayers and citizens know what he’s really like.”

“When Mary spoke out in opposition to the discriminatory and hostile work environment she was subjected to by her superiors, she was retaliated against by Urquhart,” the lawsuit states.

A lawsuit filed five days earlier by Sergeant Andrea Alexander identifies the plaintiff as a gay woman and claims she too came under scrutiny after Urquhart became sheriff. “It was and is well known within the [King County Sheriff’s Office] that Sheriff Urquhart has engaged in a pattern of vindictive and retaliatory acts against women, and gay women, who speak out in protest to unlawful actions of command staff.”

According to the suit, Alexander was reassigned in the department in 2013, which effectively meant she’d receive $240 less a month in her paycheck. However, payroll did not adjust her check for several months. When the error was discovered, an investigation was launched that eventually led to Alexander being fired. The punishment didn’t fit the crime, the suit argues, and Alexander was really fired because she is “a gay, African American woman, and because she spoke out in opposition” to her reassignment. An arbitrator later found that while Alexander was “dishonest” in not alerting the county about the pay issue, she should not have been fired for it.

The King County Sheriff’s Office has responded to the two recent suits by releasing its own documentation of the incidents, which it says prove that proper procedures were followed in both cases. In the Syson case, the office released a report issued in 2015 in which an investigator found no evidence “to support the allegations [that Syson’s supervisors] discriminated, harassed, or retaliated against Mary Syson based on age or gender,” and that Urquhart actually reduced Syson’s punishment after reviewing her case. In the case of Alexander, the Sheriff’s Office pointed to the arbitrator’s finding that Alexander had acted dishonestly, and said that at no time prior to the lawsuit had Alexander argued that her race, gender, or sexuality played a part in the case.

Defenders of the sheriff say the lawsuits are signs that Urquhart is taking an aggressive stand toward deputies who aren’t up to snuff. “All too often police chiefs and sheriffs are timid about doing that,” Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association, says by e-mail. “Sheriff Urquhart has used those discipline tools to deal decisively with misconduct, which is welcome.”

A representative of Urquhart’s re-election campaign says the lawsuits represent pushback on Urquhart’s aggressive stand against deputy misconduct. “In 2012, Sheriff Urquhart ran on a platform of accountability,” Jason Bennett, Urquhart’s campaign manager, said in an e-mail asking about the suits. “Since taking office, he has fired 20 deputies for cause, 16 male and four female. Their offenses run the gamut from dishonesty, to theft, to even pimping out their own wife. The public doesn’t want police officers who lie, cheat, steal, or otherwise dishonor the badge. Sheriff Urquhart expects ethical conduct from his deputies, and he will continue to hold them to that standard.”

In both cases, the plaintiffs are represented by Julie Kays of Connelly Law Offices. Kays previously represented, alongside Lincoln Beauregard, deputies Amy Shoblom, Lou Caballero, and Diana Neff, who claimed in a 2014 lawsuit that they were targeted for speaking out against discrimination and sexual harassment in the force. That suit was settled earlier this year for $1.25 million, though Urquhart said in a press release that he wanted it to go to trial to make his case, which included the assertion that Shoblom and Caballero were actually disciplined for lying about an altercation they had with a Metro bus driver.

Kays is also co-counsel, with Beauregard, in the suit against Murray. However, in an e-mail, Kays says nothing political should be read into that connection between the suits. “Politics have zero to do with it. It’s about holding a Sheriff accountable for engaging in the systemic discrimination of women who work in the KCSO,” she writes. “These women deserve so much better than this.”

dperson@seattleweekly.com

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