Monday, March 1, 2021
March 1, 2021

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Auditor’s Office investigates complaint over Benton, county

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The Washington State Auditor’s Office has opened an investigation into Clark County and state Sen. Don Benton, who serves as the county’s director of environmental services.

The complaint was filed by a resident — unnamed by the Auditor’s Office to maintain confidentiality — and suggests there was lax county oversight over Benton’s dual role as a department director and state legislator. The Auditor’s Office could not provide specifics about the investigation, citing its ongoing nature.

At issue: During last winter’s legislative session, Benton, a Vancouver Republican, continued to log hours for the department of environmental services from Olympia as part of a verbal work agreement reached with County Administrator Mark McCauley.

McCauley said he met with a state auditor and provided documentation that Benton had conducted work for the county during the session. The documentation included emails, phone records and Benton’s keycard history, which showed he entered the Public Service Building 18 times during the session.

The auditor “appeared to be satisfied with my explanation,” McCauley said. “I have no evidence they will write anything negative.”

The still-open investigation is the latest dust-up in the year-long controversy over Benton’s hiring.

Last May, two Republican county commissioners, David Madore and Tom Mielke, hired the longtime lawmaker to head the department. The hiring sparked a firestorm of controversy, with Commissioner Steve Stuart, a Democrat, decrying it as political cronyism.

The former interim environmental services director, Anita Largent, sued for discrimination, arguing that the county skirted state law and its own hiring policies. The county settled the suit this month for $250,000.

A work agreement Benton signed when he was hired gave the impression he would either take a leave of absence or use paid time off during legislative sessions. The agreement was written by former Clark County Administrator Bill Barron. After Barron’s resignation last summer, McCauley reached a verbal agreement with Benton allowing him to work from Olympia.

The state’s accountability audit of the county is scheduled to be released in mid-July, said Thomas Shapley, a spokesman for the Auditor’s Office. Findings from the Benton investigation will be included in the new report.

Benton has been at the center of other complaints in recent months. Adam Bartz, the executive director of the Washington Senate Democratic Campaign, filed a complaint with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission in October saying Benton, who also owns an advertising consulting company, had declined to list clients on financial disclosure forms. That same month, Benton asked the commission to exempt him from the rules, which it agreed to do.

In April, the PDC received a letter signed by 195 county residents asking the commission to reconsider the exemption. Commission officials told the petitioners they couldn’t reconsider the decision. The PDC extended Benton’s financial disclosure exemption at a May 22 hearing.

Bartz’s complaint remains under investigation, according to the PDC.

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