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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Benton seeks $2 million from county

Two other former employees seek additional combined $3 million in tort claims

By Jake Thomas, Columbian political reporter
Published: October 28, 2016, 8:09pm

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and two former subordinates have signaled to Clark County that they intend to file a lawsuit for what’s described as hostility and retaliation the trio experienced before losing their jobs at the county’s now eliminated Department of Environmental Services.

All three were part of a series of hires orchestrated by County Councilors David Madore and Tom Mielke that were derided as political favors.

Three nearly identical tort claims, which signal an intention to sue, were filed Oct. 19 with the county’s Risk Management Division on behalf of Benton along with Susan Rice and Christopher Clifford. The claims state that each suffered economic damages, ongoing medical expenses, reduced employability and emotional distress from working at the county.

Benton and Clifford both seek $2 million each in damages and attorney’s fees. Rice seeks $1 million.

The claims take aim at County Manager Mark McCauley as being especially abusive. The new county charter approved by voters in 2014, after the three claimants had received their county jobs, gives McCauley authority to hire and fire personnel.

“I’m not at all surprised at all,” McCauley said Friday before declining to comment further. “We’re a litigious society.”

County Risk Manager Mark Wilsdon also declined to comment.

Benton was hired as director of the Department of Environmental Services in 2013. He received “high compliments” from former County Administrator Bill Barron regarding his job performance, according to the claims. After McCauley took over as acting county manager, he approved Benton’s telecommuting and flex hours to allow him to serve in the 2015 Legislature, according to the claims. During the legislative session, Benton said he worked weekends and 15-hour days while receiving positive performance evaluations, according to the claims.

In mid-December, Benton claims he expressed concerns to McCauley about improper transfers of money out of the department. Benton alleges McCauley responded by yelling at Benton to let the matter go. The claims further state that Benton was yelled at by McCauley again, this time in front of his management team, after he responded to a question “truthfully” about a code change sought by Community Planning Director Oliver Orjiako.

The claims also states that McCauley interfered with Benton’s hiring decisions and a trip he took to California was scrutinized in a way that “smell(ed) a lot like harassment.”

McCauley, according to the claims, hurt morale by spreading rumors about the department’s consolidation and almost became physical with Benton in 2015.

In April 2016, Benton filed a whistleblower complaint against McCauley. An an investigation later concluded the complaint had no merit.

In January, McCauley told Benton to work normal county hours during the 2016 legislative session, and take accrued paid time off or take unpaid leave to accommodate his legislative schedule.

Benton says he sought medical treatment for nerves, mental health counseling and incurred legal costs.

“Rice went into Benton’s office soon after Benton read McCauley’s email that threatened termination if Benton did not follow his directives,” reads the claims. “Rice noticed Benton was distraught and near tears. She became increasingly concerned as Benton became paler and paler, put his hand to his heart and said his heart was palpitating so hard that he was having difficulty concentrating and focusing.”

In May, Benton lost his job when the department was consolidated. Rice, an administrative assistant who complained about Benton’s treatment and Clifford, a program coordinator whom according to the claim was also subject to McCauley’s hostility, also lost their positions.

“Rice felt betrayed, humiliated and could not sleep that night, as she was concerned about all of the open-ended projects she left behind,” reads the claim, which states that she worried she would be “blackballed” and has unsuccessfully sought other employment at the county.

All three are represented by Thomas Boothe, a Portland attorney who declined to comment.

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