No charges for union worker accused of sabotage

Accusation led United Grain to lock out 44 union members

By Paris Achen and Aaron Corvin

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Letter regarding United Grain incident

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The Clark County Prosecuting Attorney's Office won't file charges against a longshore worker accused of sabotaging operations at United Grain Corp. during a labor dispute in December. The company locked out 44 union workers Feb. 27 based on its private investigator's conclusion that union worker Todd Walker had purposely damaged the company's machinery.

United Grain claimed that surveillance footage showed that Walker poured sand into the gearbox of a grain-loading machine on Dec. 22, temporarily halting grain operations at the Port of Vancouver. The company, which has said it fired Walker, has filed a civil suit related to the allegations.

Senior Deputy Prosecutor Jeff McCarty said in a letter to Vancouver police Det. Carole Boswell that he agreed with her conclusion that it's impossible to identify the person captured on the video or to be certain "that the person in the video is actually damaging the machine."

"The video is from a considerable distance, appears grainy, and is of poor quality," McCarty wrote. "From my review of the video, it is only possible to prove that a person in an orange coat and tan pants approaches and is around the damaged machine."

In a statement issued to the Columbian on Thursday, Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said: "It's a monumental relief for Mr. Walker and his family to be able to move on from what we've said all along was a false allegation from the company."

"Mitsui-UGC" — a reference to United Grain's Tokyo-based parent Mitsui & Co. — "used this false allegation as an excuse to lock out dozens of local workers, and the whole community has suffered for it," Sargent said. "The union would like to reach a fair agreement and get local union members back to work where they belong."

Walker's attorney, Gene Mechanic, said he couldn't comment on McCarty's decision, as he hadn't yet had time to read the prosecutor's letter.

The resolution of the criminal matter will not prevent United Grain from pursuing a civil suit filed Feb. 28 in Clark County Superior Court against Walker for $300,000 that claims damages to grain equipment at the Port of Vancouver and related losses from the temporary shutdown of operations.

Uncertainty about whether Walker would face criminal charges delayed the civil suit's legal process known as discovery, in which Walker would be compelled to answer questions from United Grain's attorney, Daniel Barnhart. Judge John Nichols ruled that Walker did not have to answer those questions for now because he has a constitutional right against self-incrimination. Nichols said he would review his decision on Oct. 4. It's unclear whether United Grain may seek to accelerate that review, given McCarty's decision. Barnhart was not available Thursday to comment because he was in legal proceedings.

"We will just have to see the impact of Mr. McCarty's decision on the civil suit," Mechanic said.

Pat McCormick, spokesman for United Grain, released the following statement late Thursday: "We remain convinced the video evidence shows Mr. Walker attempting to sabotage critical operating equipment last December, and the civil case against Mr. Walker will now move forward without the Fifth Amendment basis for his refusal to testify under oath about the incidents."

The allegations against Walker formed the foundation of United Grain's decision on Feb. 27 to lock out 44 union dockworkers at its sprawling facility at the Port of Vancouver.

At the time, the company sent a letter to union leaders outlining its reasons for freezing out workers. An investigation by a former FBI investigator, hired by United Grain, found credible evidence that a union member — who wasn't identified in the letter — had sabotaged and destroyed equipment, according to the letter written by Richard Alli, another attorney for United Grain.

"These criminal acts will not be tolerated" by United Grain, Alli wrote.

The fallout from the lockout includes ongoing pickets by the ILWU, the use of replacement workers at United Grain, Vancouver police responses to reported incidents, and charges and countercharges filed by both the ILWU and the company with the National Labor Relations Board.

Government leaders, including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, have urged the parties to renew contract negotiations. Those negotiations began about a year ago but broke down in late 2012 before the lockout ensued in February. Since the lockout, the Port of Vancouver has attempted to maintain a neutral stance, setting aside a gate on its east side for picketers to protest and for United Grain personnel to access the company's site. Meanwhile, Eastern Washington grain growers worry the conflict may worsen to the point of threatening their ability to move agricultural products to overseas markets.

Just last week, the Washington state Department of Agriculture said it would stop providing grain inspection services at United Grain unless steps are taken to make it safer for its inspectors to cross picket lines to conduct their work.

That raises the possibility that the 3.2 million metric tons of grain — about 16 percent of U.S. wheat exports — that moves in an average year through the Port of Vancouver to overseas markets could stop moving.

A spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture said this week the department is talking to port and United Grain officials about how to resolve the department's safety concerns.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Courts; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com