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Oct. 1, 2022

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Judge fines Clark County $40,000 for withholding documents in Benton lawsuit

By , Columbian county government and small cities reporter

A Clark County Superior Court judge has levied a $40,000 fine against the county after ruling that it withheld documents in an ongoing lawsuit pursued by Don Benton, a former Republican state senator and county official.

Following a motion by plaintiffs, Judge Gregory Gonzales ruled on March 11, in addition to the fine, that the county must provide him with a private screening of all of the documents by March 17. The county then produced roughly 1,700 pages of documents, following earlier disclosures before the motion.

Benton, former director of the county Department of Environmental Services, filed the lawsuit — along with two other former employees of the now-defunct department — in December 2016. It alleged, in part, that Benton experienced hostility and harassment after resisting what he described as improper actions by then-manager Mark McCauley.

Amid a staff reorganization in March 2016, Benton was laid off. He later took a job with the administration of former President Donald Trump. The county council terminated McCauley’s contract in 2017.

Attorneys in the case had been grappling over the documents since March 2017. The recent motion claimed that the county falsely classified the documents under the scope of attorney-client privilege, or even without reason, as the plaintiffs’ attorneys repeatedly sought additional discovery.

The documents reveal correspondence from county officials, including with each other and with The Columbian. Many of the documents did not include attorneys.

Ted Buck, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said Tuesday that the new information is “seminal” to the case.

“The county’s defense from the get-go has been that the termination of the three defendants was simply part of a departmental reorganization. The information that we have now discovered makes it clear that the county’s motivation was much different than that,” Buck said. “The county has hidden documentation that goes to the heart of that issue. It significantly weakens their argument.”

The fine, in Buck’s roughly 30 years of experience practicing law, is unprecedented, he said. “I have never seen a case where the judge came close to levying as much money as Judge Gonzales did in this case.”

Megan Starks, an outside attorney for the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, said Tuesday that, “we have no statement regarding the pending case, except that the sanctions that were recently awarded will be paid by our law firm and will not be funded by the county or its taxpayers.”

Gonzales also pushed back the trial’s start date about a month to April 26. 

Columbian county government and small cities reporter

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