Agency says it's immune from Yacolt suit

Town's lawsuit claims it was unfairly maligned in 2011 audit by state

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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The Washington State Auditor's Office says it is immune from a defamation lawsuit Yacolt filed in the spring that alleges the agency unfairly maligned the town and its employees with the release of a 2011 audit.

In a motion to dismiss filed July 12 in Clark County Superior Court, the auditor's office called the town's suit a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or SLAPP. According to the motion, Yacolt's suit represents an "attack" on the agency's civic process regarding "an issue of public concern."

Lawsuits intended to restrict free speech are illegal in Washington under an enhanced anti-SLAPP statute passed in 2010.

The auditor's office is seeking to recoup attorney fees from Yacolt — a town of fewer than 2,000 residents located 14 miles northeast of Battle Ground — in addition to $10,000.

The town's suit, filed in May, says the state agency failed to verify the accuracy of an audit, conducted between 2008 and 2009, that concluded the town had violated Washington's competitive bidding law and skirted ethics rules when it purchased excavation equipment from an employee who later became the public works director.

While the audit says Yacolt officials approved the purchase of more than $13,000 worth of equipment on a no-bid basis, the town's suit says officials sought an independent appraisal of it and purchased it for $2,000 less than market value.

Former Yacolt Mayor Joe Warren, named as a co-plaintiff in the suit, resigned a week after the audit was published in 2011.

The suit says Warren resigned on the recommendation of his doctor. It alleges Warren and Pete Roberts, the town employee who sold the equipment to the city, were subjected to ridicule following the audit's publication.

The suit asks the judge to grant injunctive relief, calling for the state to retract defamatory statements and publish a corrected report.

The motion from the auditor's office, meanwhile, says the town cannot convincingly prove the audit defamed the town and its officials because the report doesn't contain statements that can be proven demonstrably false.

Yacolt's attorney, David Ridenour, said town officials had been briefed on the state's motion. The town's outside counsel will address the motion at a later date, he said.

The state recently completed its response to the town's public records request for emails and correspondence.

"Anything beyond that is something we'd of course discuss in executive session and would be inappropriate to talk about in a public forum," Ridenour said.

A hearing date has been set for Sept. 6.

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://www.twitter.com/col_smallcities; tyler.graf@columbian.com