CRC consultant sues to stop release of records

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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The Columbia River Crossing’s largest consulting firm has filed a lawsuit to stop the release of financial documents to a Vancouver company investigating the project’s spending.

David Evans & Associates — which has received more than $30 million of the $130 million-plus spent so far on planning — filed a lawsuit in Thurston County last month to block the release of its audited financial statements.

The suit names as defendants the Washington State Department of Transportation, and Vancouver resident Debbie Peterson, an employee of the accounting firm that businessman and staunch CRC opponent David Madore hired to comb through the project’s finances.

Peterson asked for the financial statements as part of a public records request to WSDOT.

David Evans & Associates says in the lawsuit that the financial statements contain information that constitutes a trade secret and could do “actual and substantial injury” to the business. A call to the consulting firm for comment was not returned.

A judge already granted a temporary injunction that will prevent WSDOT from disclosing the documents; the state had said it would have sent Peterson the information on Sept. 17. A Thurston County Superior Court clerk said Wednesday no other action is scheduled on the suit.

Peterson may never get the documents, if the judge rules on this lawsuit as many others across the state have been, said Tim Ford, open government ombudsman with the state Attorney General’s office.

“The trend seems to be that judges will agree with the private company,” Ford said.

He pointed to several cases, including one from 2004 where Boeing successfully lobbied to prevent the public disclosure of full financial figures regarding a training facility built for it by the state.

Tiffany Couch, owner of the Acuity Group, a Vancouver firm brought on by Madore to conduct an independent examination of the CRC's financial records, said the records should be made available.

“We requested only audited financial statements that were clearly part of the public record,” Couch wrote in an email. “I can’t speak for David Evans as to why they would find it necessary to go directly to a judge to block these records.”

Such moves are common for companies that don’t want what they believe is a trade secret sent out to the public, WSDOT spokesman Steve Pierce said. The state gave David Evans a heads-up about the public records request, he said.

“When we have something that could be considered proprietary information, in this case, with David Evans, we give notice to those whose information is going to be released,” Pierce said. “They took whatever legal action they took to prevent the release of it.”

The audited financial statements, paid for by the company, are required under state and federal guidelines, he said.

Long wait

Couch and Madore have battled for the release of other records they’ve requested. In July, Couch said that four requests made by her and Madore between March 4 and July 5 had yet to be answered. In a few other cases, she only got partial responses. The project said a few days later that the requests had been misfiled and would now be processed.

Couch said that the information she asked for on July 5 arrived on Oct. 4 — 91 days later.

“You will have to ask the CRC why it took 91 days from the date of our request to transfer these records from their system onto a disk and provide them to us,” she wrote. “Many of them are just a few pages or less; it appears that they could have been easily reviewed and sent over to us long before 91 days.”

Other information is coming in a trickle, Couch said.

Asked for comment, Madore wrote in an email:

“I wonder why they refuse to show that there is no problem and that everything is on the up and up. The smartest thing they can do is to release the public records and let them speak for themselves. If they have nothing to hide, then what’s the problem? … Contractors should be audited on a regular basis. That’s an important part of accountability. David Evans & Associates is subject to the same open transparent business practices as public agencies, especially when they already spent tens of millions in public funds. It feels like intimidation when this corporate giant sues people simply for asking for public records. The inconvenience of them filing in Thurston County for records that should be local, only adds to the pain and inconvenience of accountability. Transparency and accountability are meaningless words unless they translate into actual practice.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood or www.twitter.com/col_cityhall.