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News / Northwest

Alleged cover-up. Secret recording. New documents shed light on Franklin Co. investigation

By Cory McCoy, Tri-City Herald
Published: May 20, 2024, 7:42am

KENNEWICK — Damning new documents allege Franklin County leaders were secretly recorded trying to force an employee to lie to detectives and prosecutors.

Even though the county administrator has been given whistleblower protection, that didn’t stop the conflict from erupting into a loud outburst in the courthouse this week.

At one point a commissioner told the administrator that he’d helped hire just over a year ago, “I think you’re the problem around here.”

The description of the audio and of the most recent arguments at the courthouse comes from new documents obtained by the Tri-City Herald through Washington’s Public Records Act.

It’s part of an official case report compiled by the lead sheriff’s investigator and sheds more light on the extent to which Franklin County Commission Chairman Rocky Mullen and Auditor Matt Beaton allegedly worked to put a stop to an investigation into alleged misconduct.

The recording came to light after Mullen was interviewed by a sheriff’s investigator, showing he allegedly lied and directed the cover-up attempt reported last week by the Herald.

Mullen did not return a request for a comment on the allegations last week. He told KEPR TV that he was not aware that he was under investigation until the Herald published the initial story May 9.

The documents also paint a clearer picture of Commissioner Clint Didier’s alleged involvement and apparent attempts to retaliate. They also detail a confrontation at the courthouse that was overheard by employees.

Potential criminal charges being investigated include official misconduct, tampering with a witness, criminal conspiracy and making a false statement to a public servant.

Sheriff’s officials say the case is still under investigation under the direction of a special prosecutor from Snohomish County. No charges have been filed.

HAPO Center payment

The investigation began after county Administrator Mike Gonzalez received an invoice in early January for Simmons Venue Management’s last month of work at the HAPO Center. SVM is a local company owned by the Simmons family, known for their CG Public House and Catering.

They had stepped in to take over managing the county-owned event center after a management exodus in 2022. After losing a bid to become the permanent contractor in August 2023, SVM continued to work with the county and its new contractor Harris White Leasure Group to ensure a smooth transition.

That process lasted several months. Their last invoice was submitted to the county in January 2024 for services through the end of October, when Harris White Leasure’s contract was finalized and its new management team was fully in place.

Typically invoice approval would just go through the HAPO Center, but Harris White Leasure wanted the county’s approval on the Simmons invoice because the initial document had the wrong fiscal year listed. It was sent back to SVM to be corrected.

Because several previous contracts had left the county in a bad position, the new contract made Gonzalez responsible for approving reimbursements to Harris White Leasure for anything over $25,000. He also was given more oversight of the center.

Gonzalez told investigators he believed Simmons should be paid because of the “considerable work” done to help Harris White Leasure and for compiling the financial reports.

He then made his case to the three member county commission. The newest member of the commission, Steve Bauman, agreed the invoice needed to be paid. Mullen was reportedly reluctant but gave Gonzalez the green light and Didier did not respond, according to Gonzalez’s account in the documents.

After approving the invoice, Gonzalez told investigators he got a text message from Mullen telling him not to pay it.

Gonzalez then had the auditor’s office staff put a hold on the payment on Jan. 17, and was told it would be frozen until Gonzalez gave them approval to clear it.

Contractor put in the middle

The same day Gonzalez got a call from the manager of the HAPO Center, telling him he needed to contact HWL’s Wesley Harris.

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Beaton allegedly had contacted Harris on Jan. 9 and told him the payment wouldn’t be approved, but to process it anyway. Harris believed the call was “abnormal and unnecessary” and became concerned he was being involved in some county political infighting.

“According to Harris, Beaton advised him that he should process this invoice like he normally would. Beaton then stated, ‘I don’t think this is a wise decision that Mike (Gonzalez) is approving something like this and I don’t think the county commissioners are going to be very happy with it.’ Harris then stated he told Beaton that he should probably talk to Mike about this,” sheriff’s Commander Marcus Conner wrote after interviewing Harris.

Harris said that after he got off the phone with Beaton, he received a call from his business partner Larry Leasure, who had received a similar call and was concerned. Beaton also allegedly contacted Harris’ girlfriend trying to reach him.

When Harris was asked why he thought Beaton was doing this, he told investigators that he “believes the purpose was to have this invoice processed through so the commissioners would be upset and have a different opinion on Gonzalez’ ability to do his job.”

Harris and Leasure were both concerned about the position they were being put in, and how it might impact their government contracting work, according to the documents.

In addition to venue and event management, the company also contracts to run food services at military bases and government facilities. Harris said that meant he had a duty to cooperate with any investigation.

Investigation begins

After speaking with Harris, Gonzalez mentioned the issue to Daniel Stovern in the prosecutor’s office, who told him a crime may have been committed.

Stovern often acts as the legal advisor to the county and the board of commissioners. He referred Gonzalez to the sheriff’s office.

Beaton allegedly called Harris back on Jan. 19 after receiving an email from Gonzalez confronting him. Harris told investigators that Beaton wanted to know what he had told Gonzalez and tried to read him the email, but Harris declined.

Franklin County Sheriff Jim Raymond assigned the investigation to Conner and then reached out to Benton County for outside help. The documents do not indicate the sheriff had any further involvement, and Raymond has referred all questions about the investigation to Undersheriff Monty Huber.

Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant requested a special prosecutor from Snohomish County, in Everett, Wash., to assist with advising investigators. Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Elise Deschenes previously told the Herald that she has provided advice and guidance on search warrants, but no charges have been forwarded yet.

The Herald previously obtained two unsealed search warrants used to collect information from Mullen’s personal and work phones, as well as to search county devices.

The new documents are a fuller accounting of the interactions Conner had during the investigation, and include the official case report.

Alleged cover-up

Gonzalez was given whistleblower status after the investigation was opened. That means he is legally protected from retaliation in the form of threats, firing or demotion.

In the days that followed the initial report to Stovern, Mullen and Beaton allegedly learned of the investigation and coordinated to try and get Gonzalez to recant his statements.

“During Gonzalez’ initial interview he stated that he believed Beaton was doing this to place Gonzalez’ position at the county in jeopardy. Gonzalez further stated that there has been a breakdown in their working relationship because Beaton believes that he is taking the side of Beaton’s political opponents and then referenced a recent dispute between Beaton and Sheriff Raymond that Gonzalez was attempting to resolve,” Conner wrote.

“When Gonzalez was asked if he believed his job was truly at risk he replied, ‘Now that I’ve reported this incident I absolutely believe my job is at risk.’ During this initial interview I observed that Commissioner Mullen was repeatedly calling Gonzalez’ cell phone and it was causing him to appear to have considerable anxiety and lose his thought process. I asked Gonzalez if he would like to end our conversation and continue it at a later time to which he agreed.”

Potential witness tampering

Later that day Gonzalez spoke to commissioners Bauman and Mullen.

Gonzalez said Bauman told him he had spoken to Beaton to see what was going on, and that Beaton’s story didn’t make sense to him. When he was informed an investigation had been opened on Jan. 19 or 20, Bauman advised Gonzalez to be honest with investigators.

Conner wrote that this indicated that by Jan. 20 the elected officials within the county already knew about the investigation.

Bauman later told investigators Beaton approached him and said Gonzalez did not have the authority to approve the invoice, but Bauman rebuffed him and told Beaton he was overstepping his authority and the decision whether to make a payment was a commission matter.

Gonzalez told investigators that Mullen told him he also had talked with Beaton.

Mullen spoke with Beaton and insisted they needed to have a meeting on Monday morning (Jan. 22) with the two of them and Beaton to “get this figured out.”

Gonzalez told investigators he believed the purpose of this meeting was going to be to ‘bury’ this issue but didn’t feel like he could refuse to attend because he was being instructed by the commission chairperson.

After learning of the attempt to set up the meeting, Conner contacted the prosecutor’s office.

Conner said there was a “legitimate concern that forcing Gonzalez into the meeting could be considered witness tampering if either of the two attempted to get Gonzalez to change his story or pressure him in any way.”

“I requested that (the prosecutor) attempt to stop this meeting from occurring until we could attempt to interview all involved parties,” Conner wrote. “Sant replied that Stovern had already given several individuals a warning against doing anything that could give the appearance of tampering with this investigation but would also follow up as well.”

‘No choice’

Gonzalez told investigators he felt he had no choice but to attend the meeting with Beaton and Mullen.

During that meeting, Gonzalez said that Beaton allegedly admitted to trying to get the payment forced through, but said Didier put him up to it.

They told Gonzalez he needed to send out a letter saying everything had just been a misunderstanding and they were trying to put it behind them, but Gonzalez told them he had not misunderstood and would not lie about it.

Gonzalez said he refused to write a letter, but would try to work together moving forward.

Mullen began following up by text from both his personal and county-owned cell phones insisting Gonzalez write the letter, because the accusations could “cause a storm” and put the county’s relationship with Harris White Leasure at risk.

What Beaton and Mullen didn’t know at the time was that the meeting had been recorded.

Secret recording

Gonzalez recorded the meeting because he was reportedly concerned he was going to be asked to commit a crime, but had no intention of ever releasing the recording, according to the documents. Gonzalez only came forward with the recording because Mullen suggested he had lied to investigators.

Washington is a two-party consent state, meaning both parties typically have to know a recording is taking place. However, Washington courts have held that secret recordings are legal in instances when one party is asking the other to commit a crime.

“I was hoping to go to my grave with this but I am not going to have my integrity called into question,” Gonzalez allegedly later told investigators.

Conner tried to set up interviews with several elected officials after the meeting.

He attempted to set up a meeting with Didier, but was unsuccessful. After a back and forth, Didier ultimately refused to be interviewed.

“The purpose of wanting to speak to Commissioner Didier was to determine if (he) did indeed ask Beaton to contact Harris or Leasure and the contents of what he asked Beaton to say,” Conner wrote.

A week later, Gonzalez contacted Conner because Didier had allegedly ordered him to fire Conner’s wife, who works in the county’s Office of Public Defense.

He said he believed her manager Larry Ziegler had also been told to fire her. Gonzalez told Conner he did not intend to fire her, but wanted him to know because it looked like “things are going to get pretty nasty.”

Conner passed the information along to Raymond to make a determination about whether the attempted firing needed to be investigated. It’s unclear if a criminal investigation into this was ever opened, but at the end of April, an attorney for Whitney Conner sent Didier and the county a cease and desist letter.

Conflicting stories

When Mullen finally met with investigators on March 26, he claimed Gonzalez refused to try and move forward amicably, that he had not coordinated with Beaton, that he was against paying Simmons from the start and that Didier had not been mentioned during the meeting.

Gonzalez’s secret recording allegedly showed that these claims by Mullen were all untrue.

Conner wrote that the recording appeared to be the entire meeting from greetings to a closing. A summary of the recording was included in a detailed case report released through a public records request.

The Herald has requested a copy of the full recording.

Conner identified the voices on the recording as Gonzalez, Beaton and Mullen.

“The recording established several instances of false or misleading statements made by Mullen in his interview, as well as multiple attempts to coerce Gonzalez into changing his story (by) both Mullen and Beaton,” Conner wrote.

Mullen allegedly told Conner that Didier’s name never came up. The recording established that Didier was mentioned a dozen times and that Beaton had allegedly justified his actions by blaming Didier.

Mullen was asked if Gonzalez confronted Beaton about the issue or whether it was mentioned that Beaton had contacted Harris. He told Conner no in both cases, but the recording allegedly shows it was discussed at length.

In the recording, Beaton allegedly attempted to explain his interference in the payment process, and that it was his job as auditor and Gonzalez cut him off saying he didn’t need an explanation, he just wants to move on.

Beaton allegedly insisted there has to be an explanation and that this was really important to him.

Gonzalez allegedly pushed back, saying what he had done was not the role of the auditor.

Asked to mislead investigators

Near the end of the meeting, Gonzalez said he talked to Stovern because he was concerned that Harris had been made involved.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Gonzalez said before being cut off by Beaton.

“I know what should happen if, and I appreciate you telling me that, is that you should send an email that, um, you sat down with the chair and myself and that uh, you didn’t have the whole story and that I, that there was no issue here and that you’re good with it and send it to him (Mullen), me, you, and then send it to Stovern and it should be over,” Beaton allegedly told Gonzalez.

Beaton then suggests the issue needs to be shut down because a county attorney and the sheriff’s office had become involved.

“You better protect Wes Harris. You want to shut this down…” Beaton then states, “ … I would send something because if you’ve spun up legal and they’re talking with the sheriff … “

Gonzalez cut Beaton off, saying he didn’t “spin up” anything, that he had just asked Stovern if this was an issue.

Beaton then allegedly asked Mullen if he agreed that a letter should be written to shut the matter down.

“Yeah. But I’m asking you, you started it if … do you (Mullen) agree on this or?” Beaton said

Mullen then responds, “I I think a letter should be sent out saying, Hey, we’ve resolved it ourselves.”

Mullen and Beaton then allegedly began to tell Gonzalez what he should write in the letter.

Beaton insisted the intent of the letter was to keep Harris out of the controversy.

Beaton then allegedly reiterated the letter would “make everything go away otherwise the county is going to lose HWL,” according to the documents.

Mullen allegedly agreed they didn’t want to lose the contractor, and Gonzalez said he didn’t either.

“The rest of it’s between us,” Beaton said according to the transcript.

Hiding calls

Mullen said the meeting ended with Beaton and Gonzalez agreeing to write a letter stating the matter had been put behind them and they were going to move on. Mullen told Conner the letter was his idea.

Gonzalez told investigators he had no intention of writing a letter but told Beaton and Mullen what they wanted to hear in order to get out of the meeting.

He later reiterated that he wouldn’t write the letter because it amounted to lying, when Mullen began texting him about why he hadn’t written it yet.

“Mullen then stated, ‘You know, because the two of ‘em obviously weren’t getting along. And I’m like. Mike had said that he had, um nonchalantly mentioned it to Stover(n) and Stover(n) was like, hey I think that’s a crime that been committed. And Mike said that was never his intention. And I said, well then maybe we just write a paragraph saying, hey (we’re) working this out, let’s move forward.’”

Later in the interview with Conner, Mullen said that Gonzalez never wrote the letter. Mullen indicated that he no longer has respect for Gonzalez and lost trust in him because he did not write the letter.

Mullen also was asked if he had talked to anyone about the meeting over that weekend, Jan. 19-21, and told Conner he hadn’t.

A search warrant revealed numerous phone calls between Mullen and Beaton on Friday and Saturday.

‘Baseless allegations’

Investigators tried to schedule an interview with Beaton on March 28, but he was out of the office. His assistant put them on the calendar for April 1. Conner contacted Beaton by phone, and Beaton allegedly went on a prolonged rant about the investigation.

“When he was done I clarified a few of his statements and asked if he would be willing to schedule an interview. He declined,” Conner wrote. “This interaction was recorded by Beaton on his personal cell phone.”

On April 11, Beaton’s attorney Scott Johnson contacted Conner and asked him to direct all communication through him. Conner wrote that the offer for an interview was still on the table, but as of the completion of the documents on May 14 he had not been able to interview Beaton.

Last week, Johnson provided the Herald with a statement from Beaton.

Beaton maintains he was simply doing his job and insisting that the sheriff and other Franklin County officials tell the truth. Beaton believes the investigation is politically motivated.

Johnson told the Herald that they have not filed a lawsuit but are considering their legal options.

“It is clear that certain elements of the Franklin County government have conspired in an effort to try to remove Matt from office through these baseless criminal allegations,” Johnson wrote.

“This conspiracy is based on personal grudges held by those Franklin County officials against Matt for doing his job as auditor, namely protecting Franklin County taxpayer’s money. Far from committing any criminal acts, Matt has insisted that all Franklin County officials be honest and follow the laws and regulations …,” the statement continued.

“These false allegations are fueled by ego and abuse of power. When the truth and facts are exposed through the pending lawsuit and those to be filed, the public will have opportunity to decide for themselves and they will see this for what it is.”

Courthouse confrontation

The Herald published a story about the troubles at the courthouse and the cease and desist letter on May 9. On Monday, May 13 Didier got into a heated confrontation at the courthouse as employees began their week.

Didier did not respond to a request for comment earlier that week.

Gonzalez was interviewed again by Conner on Monday, May 13, after a confrontation with Didier at the courthouse, according to the most recent report.

Conner had been made aware of a heated confrontation just before 7 a.m. that morning when Gonzalez was set to have a regularly scheduled meeting with the county’s government affairs coordinator and Didier.

The two walked over to Didier’s office, where the argument began. Word got out because the doors of the office were open.

“(Gonzalez) said to Didier, ‘Hey Clint, how’s it going.’ Didier responded, ‘I don’t know. Um, you tell me. You know what Mike, I think you’re the problem around here.’ Gonzalez responded with, ‘Oh really?’”

Gonzalez asked him to explain why he was the problem and the conversation allegedly got heated, raising their voices arguing about the HAPO Center payment.

Didier allegedly said this wouldn’t have happened if Gonzalez had just listened to him about the payment, to which Gonzalez said he responded by explaining that Didier is just one person on the board.

Gonzalez also referred to Beaton as a “lying bastard.”