Thursday, August 13, 2020
Aug. 13, 2020

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Clark County manager won’t be questioned in Benton suit

Judge rules Shawn Henessee, who started at county two years after Don Benton was terminated, does not have to be deposed

By , Columbian political reporter
Published:

A Clark County Superior Court judge has ruled that county manager Shawn Henessee will not have to undergo questioning as part of a lawsuit being pursued by Don Benton, a former Republican state senator and county official.

On Friday morning, Judge Gregory Gonzales granted a motion from the county protecting Henessee from undergoing a deposition, where witnesses give sworn out-of-court testimony as part of evidence gathering.

Benton, the former director of the Clark County Department of Environmental Services, filed his lawsuit against his former employer in December 2016 alleging that he experienced hostility and harassment after resisting what he described as improper actions by then-manager Mark McCauley. Benton was laid off after a county reorganization in March 2016 and has since taken a job in the Trump administration. McCauley was terminated by the county council in 2017 and Henessee took over as the county’s top executive in July 2018.

A trial date has been set for April 2020 and Benton’s attorneys are in the process of gathering evidence. On Sept. 20 of this year, Megan Starks, a private attorney hired by the county, filed a motion seeking to block a move by Benton’s attorneys to depose Henessee.

“Mr. Henessee’s deposition would be significantly costly to the county, given necessary legal expenses associated with preparing for and attending the deposition,” reads the motion. “Finally, deposing the county’s primary overseer of operations would likely cause an unnecessary interruption in county operations, diverting him from serving the people of Clark County for simply no good reason.”

The motion noted that Henessee had been hired nearly two years after Benton and two other former employees involved in the lawsuit had been terminated. It also pointed out that Henessee had no prior ties to Clark County and previously lived in Missouri and Wisconsin. According to the motion, evidence rules would block most of Henessee’s testimony because he has no direct knowledge of the events described in the lawsuit.

In a response filed on Sept. 25, Mark Conrad, attorney for Benton, argued that Henessee could provide relevant information on the county’s budget, the procedures involved in reorganizing or eliminating a county department and policies regarding the treatment of employees.

“A deposition of Mr. Henessee would provide unique insight into his position as county manager and oversight of pertinent county operations, all topics relevant to plaintiff’s claims,” he wrote.

During the hearing on Friday, Starks reiterated her arguments and said that lawyers deposing Henessee would spend hours hearing the response “I don’t know.” She likened the move to depose Henessee to a “fishing expedition.”

“I don’t have the time nor the expense to want to partake in a fishing expedition,” responded Conrad.

Nevertheless, Gonzalez sided with the county.

Rice hearing rescheduled

Gonzalez did grant a motion by Conrad to push back the date for summary judgment of claims made by Susan Rice, another former Clark County employee suing the county.

Rice has alleged that her termination from the county violated public policy as well as whistleblower protections. She’s also alleged that her termination was due to negligent supervision and intentionally caused her emotional distress.

The county has asked for her claims to be dismissed for lack of evidence and that she was laid off because of a department reorganization. Summary judgment of Rice’s claims was scheduled to be heard on Oct. 11. Conrad asked for more time to depose witnesses, including McCauley, who will undergo questioning in October. Summary judgment will now be heard Dec. 6.

During Friday’s court hearing, Starks said that Rice had undermined her own claims during her deposition.

“It also cannot be overstated that Miss Rice herself, during her deposition, denied that there was any reason for her to believe she was the subject of discrimination,” said Starks. “She denied participating in the whistleblower complaint and she denied having directly reported any misconduct.”

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