Fred Stephens’ Tragic Family Past

The death that might help explain Seattle Schools' latest scandal.

Of the many dubious characters involved in the Seattle Public Schools financial scandal, Fred Stephens seems one of the biggest puzzles. Stephens was the direct supervisor of Silas Potter, the ex-furniture repairman who ran a small-business program that, according to the state auditor’s office, wasted close to $2 million.

Clearly, Stephens utterly failed in his capacity as supervisor. (Which makes it all the more puzzling that he later got a plum job under Gary Locke at the U.S. Department of Commerce.) But one explanation for Stephens’ inattentiveness may lie in a tragic event that surely preoccupied him for part of his time working for the school district.

In February 2008, Stephens’ 25-year-old son—also named Fred Stephens, and a graduate of the University of Washington with a master’s degree in health administration—was killed under the oddest of circumstances. The younger Stephens had been partying with some friends, including a man named Michael Hessemer, at an apartment complex outside of Portland. Stephens and Hessemer were roughhousing in a hot tub after a night of drinking beer and Red Bull-and-vodkas, and snorting what a defense attorney later called a “golf-ball-sized pile of cocaine.” Then, what started as horseplay turned tragic, as the pretend fighting escalated into real violence.

Stephens drowned as a result. The whole two-hour ordeal was caught on soundless surveillance video. And Hessemer was found guilty of manslaughter the following year.

At the time of the young Stephens’ death, Potter was ramping up his program. Then in its second year, expenditures rose from $657,000 in 2007 to nearly $762,000 in 2008, according to figures supplied to Seattle Weekly by the auditor’s office. They would top $1 million in 2009.

Stephens, the district’s facilities director, already had cut Potter way too much slack by the time of the killing. When questions arose about false information supplied by Potter in 2007, Stephens allegedly told a Seattle schools attorney: “We need to make the program look good.”

Yet Stephens’ loss was bound to have had an effect on his later job performance. And he would do much better to admit it than to give the lame excuse he e-mailed to The Seattle Times on Friday, which was that the whole mess was the fault of “Potter’s dishonest behavior.”