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Jan. 29, 2022

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Benton testifies rumors of staff reorganization didn’t worry him

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor

Don Benton, the former director of the county’s now-defunct Department of Environmental Services, had heard rumblings of a department reorganization or dissolution as early as 2014, he testified Friday.

Additionally, about a week before he filed a whistleblower complaint with the county’s human resources director, an employee emailed him voicing concerns about a reorganization.

That employee, Christopher Clifford, a program coordinator, and Susan Rice, an administrative assistant, helped Benton draft his whistleblower complaint, which he filed April 28, 2016, contradicting earlier testimony.

Two weeks later, all three were laid off in what the county contends was a planned staff reorganization.

The trio filed a lawsuit later that year in Clark County Superior Court alleging hostility and retaliation during their employment. Trial in the case began Monday at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds.

Benton — at the time a Republican state senator and later a Trump administration official — was appointed in 2013 as the director of the county department.

In his continued testimony Friday morning, Benton said he shared a number of issues with the county, primarily related to environmental services, that were not well-received.

“From the very beginning, it was like I had a target on my back,” he said.

He testified Thursday about concerns he brought to the county regarding unpaid clean water division fees, suspect budget transfers and a lack of documentation, and a potential violation of open meetings laws.

He also spoke of a contentious work relationship with then-county manager Mark McCauley.

Benton said he had heard rumors of a potential department reorganization for years, saying “When you’re holding people accountable, the people you’re holding accountable don’t like that.

“I wasn’t a very popular guy,” he added.

The rumors didn’t bother him, though, he said, because he was sure the county board would need to approve an reorganization in an open meeting.

He had also asked McCauley in winter 2015 to reassure department staff a reorganization wasn’t in the works.

“I felt I may be in peril … but I never dreamed they would get rid of an entire department to get to me,” Benton testified.

He said he had planned to retire from the county in six to eight years, and his layoff significantly affected that. Instead, he took a job seven months later with the Trump administration, first as a senior White House adviser to lead the transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency and later as the director of the Selective Service System.

Much of the rest of Friday’s testimony consisted of the parties sparring over what income Benton received — when and from where — as well as the trio’s estimated earnings lost due to their layoffs.

Testimony will continue Monday, with McCauley scheduled to take the stand.