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Don Benton suit: Clark County on trial starting Monday

Lawsuit alleges that three were laid off in retaliation for resisting improprieties

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
2 Photos
State Sen. Don Benton at the legislative outlook breakfast at the Vancouver Hilton Friday December 11, 2015.
State Sen. Don Benton at the legislative outlook breakfast at the Vancouver Hilton Friday December 11, 2015. (Natalie Behring/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A trial begins Monday in a lawsuit against Clark County being pursued by Don Benton, a former Republican state senator and county official, and two former county employees.

Benton, the former director of the now-defunct county Department of Environmental Services, filed the lawsuit in December 2016 in Clark County Superior Court, along with subordinates Susan Rice and Christopher Clifford. It alleged, in part, that they faced hostility and retaliation after resisting what they described as improper actions by then-county manager Mark McCauley.

They were laid off amid a staff reorganization in March 2016, described by McCauley as a cost-saving measure. Benton later took a job with the administration of former President Donald Trump. The county council terminated McCauley’s contract in 2017.

In 2019, the trio’s counsel amended their complaint, making the same factual allegations but new legal claims — among them, that the county failed to follow its own resolutions, ordinances and home-rule charter when McCauley dissolved the department.

The trio is represented by the Seattle-based law firm Frey Buck. The county is being represented by the Seattle-based law firm Patterson Buchanan Fobes & Leitch.

The trial is scheduled to last three weeks and will be held in its entirety at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds near Ridgefield, according to court records.

Potential trial witnesses include Benton, Rice and Clifford, as well as McCauley and former county councilors David Madore and Tom Mielke.

Superior Court Judge Emily Sheldrick, who formerly served as the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor, is also listed as a potential witness for the plaintiffs. The county sought a protective order prohibiting Sheldrick from testifying at trial, but Judge Gregory Gonzales denied the motion last week.

The issue stemmed from the county inadvertently releasing work product, the majority of which was drafted by Sheldrick and falls under attorney-client information. Although the court found the disclosure was unintentional, it found the document was “fully disclosed intelligibly and knowingly.”

The disclosure occurred after Gonzales levied a $40,000 fine against the county in March, ruling it withheld documents in the case. The county then produced roughly 1,700 pages of documents, following earlier disclosures before the motion.

Attorneys in the case had been grappling over the documents since March 2017. The 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 at least one former staff member at The Columbian.