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News / Northwest

Why is a special prosecutor looking into the ex-Richland police chief and Benton sheriff?

By Cameron Probert, Tri-City Herald
Published: April 18, 2024, 7:48am

KENNEWICK — A recent report prepared for the city of Richland says its former police chief may have violated the law because she feared a damning report from her previous job was going to be publicly released.

Now a special prosecutor is being appointed and the Yakima Police Department is being asked to look into whether former Chief Brigit Clary, former Richland Detective Jeff Bickford and current Benton County Sheriff Tom Croskrey broke any laws.

Benton County Prosecutor Eric Eisinger confirmed to the Tri-City Herald on Monday that he was asked by Richland police to review the findings of the 135-page report from a Seattle law firm.

“I’m not making any assertions about whether a crime was committed,” Eisinger said. “It will be up to the Yakima Police Department and the special prosecutor to determine what course of action is taken.”

Eisinger said he previously asked the Washington State Patrol to investigate the issue. They said it would be better to send it to a another agency.

Chief reverses her decision

Richland officials hired the law firm Inslee Best in November 2023 to look into why they did not know that Clary was reportedly about to be fired from her job with the Federal Way Police Department before being hired in Richland.

City officials also wanted to know how the release of that investigation six years later may have been used to pressure her. By then, she was the Richland’s police chief.

The Tri-City Herald obtained the report under the Washington Public Records Act.

Richland hired the firm a month after Clary left on medical leave. And the city didn’t receive the report until two months after she’d officially retired on Jan. 1, 2024.

The report concluded that Clary made some allegedly improper decisions soon after learning that the Federal Way investigation into claims of her dishonesty and nepotism were going to be released in accordance with the state records law.

The Federal Way investigation had been requested by former Detective Bickford and by attorney Dan Thenell.

Soon after, Clary reversed her position on the potential discipline of a current Richland officer and agreed to allow Bickford, who was reportedly suffering from job-related stress, to have a special concealed gun permit.

Clary’s sudden change of position on the two issues can’t be explained any other way, Seattle attorney Katherine Weber wrote in her report to the city. However, she didn’t include any information on how she thought the internal investigation was used to get Clary to change her mind.

Thenell called the accusation that he made the request to pressure the chief “unsupported and untrue.”

He told the Herald that he questioned what the purpose of the report really was and why the city didn’t do a better job researching Clary before hiring her.

He said it was an open secret that Clary had problems in Federal Way and that’s why he asked for a copy of it.

“Why didn’t the city look into these rumors about what happened in Federal Way?” he said. “I find it hard to believe that they took no steps … I think (Richland) is trying to cover for itself.”

Federal Way investigation

At the time, Clary, then a lieutenant, was accused of authorizing overtime in October 2016 for her husband to conduct checks on registered sex offenders. Her husband was also a lieutenant in Federal Way, north of Tacoma..

The Federal Way internal investigation concluded that she violated the rules around her husband’s overtime for the program that she supervised. It also found she lied during interviews with investigators about knowing the policy and procedures for administering the grant.

Clary was told on Feb. 17, 2017, that the department administrators were recommending firing her based on the internal investigation.

In the mean time, she’d been looking for another job and had found a position in Richland, which was in the process of conducting a pre-employment background check.

Benton County Sheriff Croskrey, then a Richland police lieutenant, conducted Clary’s background investigation. When he asked in 2017 to talk to Clary’s immediate supervisor, Federal Way police denied the request.

“He instead speaks to DC Neal (Deputy Chief Stephan Neal) who reportedly does not mention the IA (Internal Affairs investigation) and gives Chief Clary a ‘glowing recommendation,’” Weber wrote.

She noted that Clary’s Federal Way personnel file does not include a copy of the internal investigation.

Clary also allegedly downplayed to the Richland Police Department the seriousness of the problems she was facing. She claimed that there wasn’t a supervisor available, and she hadn’t heard anything about what would happen with the investigation.

At the time, Croskrey believed it wouldn’t amount to more than a verbal or possibly written warning.

Federal Way officials did not to disclose to Richland or the public the results of Clary’s internal investigation. Under state law, when an officer leaves a department, the agency files a document with the Washington Criminal Justice Training Commission that shows if the officer was in good standing when they left.

In Clary’s case, Federal Way said she was in good standing and checked a box that said she voluntarily resigned and it wasn’t “in lieu of termination.”

Clary began work for Richland in April 2017.

Internal investigation requests

Weber’s report focuses on two public records requests for the Federal Way internal investigation — one on Aug. 8 and the second on Oct. 2.

The first request came from Dan Thenell, the attorney representing a Richland police officer in a disciplinary hearing. The report doesn’t share the details of what the officer was accused of doing.

Clary initially proposed suspending the officer for 30 days, remove him from patrol duties and making him agree that the incident would be his last chance to stay with the department. When her proposal was rejected, she was considering firing the officer.

Thenell told the Herald that the allegations were “very minor,” and that firing the officer would have been “draconian” to a reasonable person.

That prompted him to submit the request to Federal Way for the chief’s internal investigation on Aug. 8, ahead of the disciplinary hearing, but he said he didn’t tell Clary he was doing that.

“I had one personal interaction with her and that was at the disciplinary hearing,” he said to the Herald. “I didn’t know what was in those records until I got them from Federal Way.”

A second request for the Federal Way investigation came from the former police detective, Jeff Bickford, on Oct. 2, about two weeks after Clary announced her plans to retire.

Bickford had left the department in 2021 after 20 years on the job. Soon after retirement, he filed a state Labor and Industries claim for compensation for stress related to his former law enforcement job.

At that time, he started making requests to get a “retired” card, which would allow him to get credentials that would let him carry a concealed pistol no matter where he is in the U.S.

The idea behind the law is that former police officers should have the right to protect themselves and others no matter where they are even if they are no longer employed.

To get those credentials, he needed to provide a notice to the Criminal Justice Training Commission.

Then Richland Police Chief John Bruce would have needed to approve it.

But City Attorney Heather Kintzley told Bickford in an email at the time that Washington state law doesn’t allow the city to issue a “retired” card to officers who leave with a mental or stress-related disability.

The disagreement between Richland officials and Bickford turned into a 2-year fight. Weber’s report says Bickford reached out to other law enforcement officers he’d worked with over the years trying to get Richland to sign off on him getting the permit.

After Clary became the chief in 2022, she continued to deny his request and she grew angry about attempts to circumvent that decision, according to Weber’s report.

Sheriff Croskrey letter

One of the items that concerned Clary was a letter that Sheriff Croskrey wrote on Jan. 31, 2022.

Croskrey gave the letter to Bickford, who then provided it to the state Criminal Justice Training Commission.

Croskrey no longer worked for Richland but he said in the letter that Bickford left the Richland department in good standing and had never been denied a special gun permit by the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Tri-City Herald.

In her report to the city, Weber called Croskrey’s letter concerning. She pointed to his assertion that Bickford hadn’t been denied the special gun permit.

“While it is true that Mr. Bickford had not been denied a retired card by the Benton County Sheriff’s Office due to a disqualifying mental health reason, Mr. Bickford was not at any time employed by the BCSO and did not retire from the BCSO,” Weber wrote.

Weber said the letter gave “the impression Sheriff Croskrey was not transparent or forthcoming” with the commission.

Alan Harvey, an attorney speaking for Croskrey, told the Herald this week that the sheriff had no intention of misleading the state agency. He was trying to prompt a conversation.

The sheriff based his letter on a notice from former Chief Bruce, who said that Bickford left the department in good standing.

Harvey said Richland’s denial of the gun permit is based on flawed legal analysis using the incorrect law. But state law doesn’t allow officers to appeal the city’s decisions.

Croskrey hoped that the Criminial Justice Training Commission would reach out to him with any questions before issuing the permit and never asserted that Bickford worked for him, Harvey said.

After learning about the concerns raised in Weber’s report, Croskrey asked in March 2024 for an investigation by Yakima County Sheriff’s Office into his action to make sure he didn’t violate any of his own agency’s policies. The issue remains under investigation, said Harvey.

About a month after Croskrey gave Bickford the letter, Bickford applied to the state justice training commission for the permit in February 2022. He received the permit in April 2022, according to Weber’s report.

When Clary learned about the decision she was “pissed,” “extremely offended” and “outraged,” said Weber.

“Chief Clary believed that Sheriff Croskrey improperly usurped her authority and that Mr. Bickford did an illegitimate and bad faith end run around her and the department to secure his retired card,” Weber said.

Clary and Kitzley sent a letter to the commission saying that Bickford is ineligible for the special permit because of his stress-related disability.

Change of heart

Clary was notified by Federal Way in August 2023 that Thenell had requested her internal affairs investigation.

She came into Kintzley’s office “almost in tears” and “visibly shaken,” said Weber’s report.

“(She) was upset that it was to be released in response to a public records request because it was ‘never supposed to be,’” according to the report. “City attorney Kintzley stated that she told Chief Clary that that was not a permissible arrangement and advised her to speak to the (Richland) city manager about the matter.”

The report doesn’t say whether Kintzley or Clary ever spoke to Richland City Manager Jon Amundson about the release of the report.

Amundson told the Tri-City Herald in December that the city didn’t have access to the Federal Way report until November, even though they were aware an investigation had occurred.

Three days after getting the notification that Federal Way would release the report, Clary changed her mind about disciplining Thenell’s client.

Without speaking to the city attorney or the human resources director, Clary contacted the police union to offer a one-shift suspension.

The following month on Sept. 12, Richland announced Clary planned to retire at the end of 2023.

Bickford made his own request for Clary’s records from Federal Way on Oct. 2.

About 20 days after Bickford filed the request with Federal Way, Clary agreed to recommend to the state commission that he could get the permit, said Weber’s report.

When Bickford contacted her to thank her, Clary told him in an email she “wanted to make sure this happened before I left … this is my last week in the office.”

Other Richland officials only learned about Clary’s decision to issue the card when the state agency checked in with them. That prompted the city to start an investigation into what happened to change her mind after two years.

Pressured to change

While Weber’s report does not say directly that Thenell and Bickford used the Federal Way internal investigation to pressure Clary, Weber concluded the chief’s sudden reversals were an effort to avoid having the report exposed.

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In both cases, it appears Clary was notified by Federal Way that the internal investigation was going to be released and she tried to appease the people making the requests, claimed Weber.

Weber believes Clary violated several Richland police standards of conduct, including misusing her authority, giving away department property and committing an act that discredited her department.

As part of her report, Weber suggested the city develop better policies on recommending who can receive a special gun permit and other issues.

After leaving the city of Richland, Clary turned in her law enforcement certification to the state. Her husband, John Clary, retired as chief of the Toppenish Police Department soon after. He also turned in his certification to the state.

The Clarys could not be reached by the Herald about the allegations.