In a case that has dragged on for three years, Skamania County’s former auditor, accused of racking up questionable expenses and shredding public documents, pleaded guilty Thursday to a gross misdemeanor.
Initially charged with two felony counts of injury to public record, J. Michael Garvison, 41, pleaded guilty to attempted injury of public record. Clark County Superior Court Judge Barbara Johnson sentenced Garvison to serve 168 hours of community service and ordered him to pay Skamania County $62,000 in restitution.
Garvison also is not allowed to serve in a governmental finance management position again, Johnson ruled.
The judge noted the seriousness of the case, how Garvison violated the public’s trust, but assured the dozens of Skamania County residents who attended the hearing: “Fortunately, these things are rather rare. I can’t remember ever having an elected official appear before me.”
Garvison was investigated for using thousands of dollars in public money for unauthorized travel, education and office equipment expenses during four years as the county’s elected auditor. The unauthorized expenses included 13 out-of-state trips, including two conferences in Florida and one in Las Vegas.
He resigned his position in November 2009, shortly after news of the unauthorized expenses broke.
Garvison’s case was examined by the state’s Attorney General’s Office and the Skamania County Sheriff’s Office for the possibility of theft or embezzlement charges; however, no such concrete evidence was found, said defense attorney Jon McMullen.
Assigned the case in 2010, an assistant attorney general offered Garvison a plea bargain to a misdemeanor charge of official misconduct. But Skamania County’s commissioners were unhappy with the plea bargain and asked the assistant attorney general to return the case to the county. A special prosecutor from Spokane charged Garvison in December 2011 with shredding public documents.
The case was moved to Vancouver from Skamania County upon the request of the defense because of the extensive pre-trial publicity in the county to the east.
The charges allege between Jan. 1, 2009, and Feb. 28, 2009, Garvison ordered his staff to destroy the records that were vouchers that showed his expenditures in 2003 and 2004.
McMullen said that while Garvison was never charged with any theft-related crimes, the restitution amount that was agreed on by the prosecution and defense reflected “what (Skamania County residents) feel they had lost.”
Garvison will be allowed to make monthly payments. McMullen said his client lives in Oregon City, Ore., and is currently unemployed, so he doesn’t have the means to make large payments. Johnson ordered minimum payments of $250.
A review date of Oct. 4, 2013, was scheduled to check on the status of the payments and Garvison’s community service, which is to be performed in Skamania County.
Several residents spoke before the judge, decrying the plea bargain. Gloria Howell of Stevenson, the county seat, called it “not acceptable,” saying the case appeared larger than what the charges indicated.
“This case is about a white-collared official who violated the public’s trust,” she said. “What more could we have revealed without the destruction of documents?”
When it was his turn to speak, Garvison apologized to the residents of Skamania County. He admitted to asking his staff to shred documents, but stopped short of any other admissions.
“There were things I did in my office that, in retrospect, were not the greatest things to do,” he said.