The strange case of the Larson “investigation”

Tim Larson

When Tim Larson, the Sammamish communications manager, was sent home on paid Administrative Leave, his boss, City Manager Lyman Howard wrote in a memo he was under “investigation.”

Larson had to make himself available for any questions related to the investigation, Howard wrote.

Larson resigned Sept. 26. The resignation was announced by Howard to the City Council and staff in a benign email that didn’t list any reason. Howard expressed good wishes.

Sammamish Comment obtained a copy of Howard’s August memo, which was released through a public records request (PRR), and submitted a PRR for the investigation report and supporting documents following Larson’s resignation.

Two months later, the City Clerk’s office responded, “At the time of your request there was no investigation.” This appears to be parsing words. Taken literally, this means that on the date of the PRR, there was no investigation. It does not, read literally, address any previous investigation that may have existed.

What investigation?

Other documents produced under PRRs, including one from Larson’s attorney dated Sept. 1 and a four page email to the City Council and City staff from Larson, raised questions about the “investigation.”

The attorney’s letter to the City demanded to know the nature of the investigation. Larson, the attorney wrote, wasn’t informed of its nature and hadn’t been contacted about it since being placed on leave.

In Larson’s four-page email, dated Oct. 11, he said he still didn’t know the nature of the investigation.

A City Council member told Sammamish Comment there was an investigation but declined to say more, citing personnel/executive session privilege.

In an interview with Howard on Nov. 29, Howard provided an unusual response to The Comment’s query.

“There was an investigation but no paperwork was created,” he said. “The investigation was undertaken by HR [Human Resources]. There were no records upon advice of counsel.

“We tried to handle this informally. Tim was not terminated. There was no need for written documents,” Howard said.

Citing personnel confidentiality, Howard declined to detail the nature of HR’s investigation. But one document produced under PRR, from HR, indicated that Larson had been placed on leave for “gross insubordination.” The document did not outline what this was.

Campaign against Sammamish Comment

Documents obtained under PRRs made it clear the underlying issue in Larson being placed on Administrative Leave was his campaign against Sammamish Comment. His own four-page email to Council and staff, explaining his side of the story over his being placed on leave and his resignation, made it clear that this was the issue.

Larson claimed in his email that he had been given authority by Howard, and endorsed by City Attorney Mike Kenyon, to go after The Comment for its reporting of citizen Miki Mullor’s assertions about shortcomings and alleged deliberate misrepresentations and manipulation by staff in the City’s traffic concurrency system.

Miki Mullor

Although Howard denounced Mullor’s study as “deeply offensive,” “inaccurate” and politically motivated, Larson’s four-page email didn’t even mention Mullor’s name: it was all about Sammamish Comment and this writer.

Larson wrote that efforts to pursue The Comment were later essentially squashed because, he claimed, in Howard’s view the Council would not support Howard in the attempt.

Howard, in an email to Deputy Mayor Christie Malchow in July essentially claimed Larson had gone rogue in his reaching out to the Issaquah/Sammamish Reporter, something Larson denied in his four-page letter.

After Larson sent his four-page email, other employees asked how or if they should respond. Howard wrote in a staff email anyone was free to respond. He added that Larson had one perspective and that he, Howard, had another.

Lyman Howard

“Tim purported that basically he was not treated properly,” Howard told The Comment in an interview. “I would tend to disagree with him in that regarded.” In the staff email and in the interview, Howard said the situation was complicated by Larson’s long history with “members of the community,” an allusion to this writer, he confirmed, although the subject was plural not singular.

Emails

Emails and other documents obtained from Sammamish raise questions about the narrative by Howard that Larson went “rogue” when he tried to interest the local newspaper in pursuing a story about Sammamish Comment.

Nearly all emails produced by the City, all of which were reviewed by City Attorney Kenyon, were redacted, some in their entirety and some with only an innocuous introductory paragraph remaining. Subject lines remained.

While it’s impossible to draw conclusions as to the substance of these emails, what is clear is that throughout June, Larson was is regular contact with Kenyon. Howard was copied on a few of the emails and Deputy City Manager Jessi Bon was copied on others. Some were not overtly copied to anyone, though blind copies may or may not have been sent.

At least one of the emails made reference to changes Larson made “in bold” to proposed action against The Comment.

Throughout June, at least, the evidence is circumstantial but strong that Larson was acting with knowledge and consent of his superiors in the pursuit of responding to Sammamish Comment.

There is also evidence that Howard’s long response to Council Member Christie Malchow, who questioned Larson’s role, statements and activities, was reviewed by Kenyon before Howard sent the reply to Malchow.

The reply, which was extensively quoted by Sammamish Comment, essentially made the case that Larson had gone to the Issaquah/Sammamish Reporter on his own, without authorization by Howard—in other words, he went “rogue.”

The same reply said that Larson’s use of the phrase “a waste of time and money” was not in reference to examining concurrency itself, but rather in responding to allegations made by Mullor and on Facebook and reported by The Comment.

However, in an interview recorded by The Comment with the reporter from The Reporter,” to whom the phrase was made in written comments and in an interview, the writer said she viewed the phrase as related to concurrency.

Howard told The Comment that the reporter misinterpreted Larson’s comment. Larson, in his four-page email, denied he made the statement, although a document he wrote and sent to the Issaquah Reporter shows otherwise. The context could be subject to two interpretations, however.

Although Howard’s reply to Malchow said Larson talked to the newspaper on his own, the emails and documents suggest otherwise.

Approval or not?

In Larson’s four-age email, he denied that he went rogue. He said he had approval from Kenyon and from Howard to approach the newspaper. He wrote that he was prepared to put a statement on the City website, but Howard disapproved, claiming (Larson wrote) that he would not have the backing of the Council. Larson drafted an article for the City Newsletter and, indeed, four Council Members objected and the article was pulled.

Welcome Back

The mystery over his status deepened because Larson was being “welcomed” back to work by Howard.

A month after Larson was put on leave, he was preparing to come back to work.

Concerned that the “investigation” and “falsehoods”—that he went rogue and said the examination of concurrency was a “waste of time and money”—left a cloud over him, Larson drafted a statement intended to be issued by Howard absolving him of improprieties.

In Larson’s Oct. 11 memo to staff and Council, he wrote Howard said they “were close” on the memo and resolving his return to work.

But this turned out not to be the case.

In emails obtained through PRRs, Human Resources director Karen Porterfield expressed concern that Larson’s draft absolved him of any wrong-doing. He had been placed on leave for “gross insubordination.” Absolution could open the City to liabilities, she wrote. Did the attorney have any suggestion? she asked.

Larson’s draft was obtained under PRR. The email, dated Sept. 22, was intended to be issued by Howard upon Larson’s return to work. Larson’s draft cleared any cloud over his head and said Larson would return to work until age 70, one year away, in a new position called Content Manager.

Documents produced under PRRs made it clear the position of Content Manager would allow Larson to complete tenure for certain retirement benefits.

Instead, the city attorney’s response was a draft statement to be issued in Howard’s name that eliminated all of Larson’s suggestions clearing his name.

Resignation

Larson objected to the new draft and resigned Sept. 26.

Dear Karen—

Given that Lyman seemed quite comfortable with my original statement, and said so – “I think we’re very close!” – I’m surprised by this radical revision. My goal, after all, was to clear my name and push back against obvious falsehoods, something this revision manages to avoid completely.

Do you imagine that I could return to work under the cloud of an unexplained suspension, an undefined investigation, and an uncorrected set of falsehoods that damage my good name?

It’s a steep and undeserved price to pay for the city’s unwillingness to be truthful and take responsibility for its decisions, but I now have no choice but to resign my position, effective immediately.

Tim Larson

Howard told The Comment, “When I said we’re close and we can make some edits to this to certain sections, those were sections that the attorneys had issue with as well.”

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