ILWACO — The city’s former wastewater treatment manager could face prison time and hefty fines for allegedly falsifying water-pollution reports while he was running the Ilwaco utility.
The state Attorney General’s Office filed nine felony charges against Warren Hazen on Nov. 14. His arraignment hearing in Pacific County Superior Court is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 1.
The criminal charges come after investigators with the AG’s Counsel for Environmental Protection and the Washington Department of Ecology looked into possible mismanagement at the Ilwaco plant.
Now, Hazen, 55, is accused of knowingly providing invalid information on monthly discharge reports from December 2014 to August 2015. The longtime plant manager signed the documents and filed them with Ecology before he was fired for an unrelated reason in the fall of 2015.
Hazen denies falsifying the records, a Class C felony with a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
“The mayor has such a hankering for me. He’s trying to bury me,” Hazen said, after hearing he was facing criminal charges last week. He was out of town on a hunting trip.
His wife, Laurie Hazen, said they plan to hire an attorney and fight.
“All of this is a set-up,” she said. “It makes me sick.”
Mayor Mike Cassinelli fired the longtime plant manager and the other operator, Hazen’s son-in-law David Gustafson, in 2015 without giving a reason publicly.
Cassinelli remained tight-lipped about the terminations until this week. On Monday, he said he made his decision after looking into how city computers were being used.
Cassinelli hired iFocus Consulting to do the check for Ilwaco. The Astoria company came up with a 77-page list of websites visited on computers at the plant during a 60-day period in 2015. Some appeared to be work-related, others did not.
“It was eye-opening — shocking,” Cassinelli said.
Slacking at the switch?
Hazen was paid $114,338 to manage the plant during his last two years with the city, according to state records.
His browser history showed he’d been spending time using the internet for reasons unrelated to his job or city business. He surfed hundreds sites related to hunting, fishing and the outdoors. He also spent time shopping online, playing games and watching videos.
Hazen researched how to pass a drug test after drinking alcohol and taking anti-anxiety medication, such as Xanax and Valium. He also visited a website that includes cat videos among its offerings more than four dozen times during the 60-day check.
The computer consultant reported Hazen spent 12 hours and 49 minutes “clicking” on various sites in June 2015, according to Environmental Counsel investigator John Huntington’s affidavit. However, the amount of time Hazen stayed on each site is unknown.
State and city officials familiar with the case couldn’t explain how the consultant determined the amount of time Hazen spent clicking.
Badgered by the boss?
Hazen said he wasn’t told why he was fired and he wasn’t aware of the computer check or any problems with how the computers were being used at the plant. He and Gustafson listened to internet radio while they worked, so their computers were usually running throughout their shifts, Hazen explained.
His browsing history showed sites that include music and podcasts.
Hazen said Cassinelli had it out for him after he reported concerns to City Hall about Port of Ilwaco businesses illegally dumping waste and dirty water. He said the mayor told him to “keep his mouth shut” and warned him not to alert regulators to problems in Ilwaco if he wanted to keep his job.
Cassinelli denies intimidating or threatening Hazen.
‘Egregious’ violations investigated
Ecology started looking into problems at the plant weeks after the mayor dismissed the operators. Investigators concluded Hazen was “grossly negligent” in managing the utility for at least four years.
Ecology spokesman Dave Bennett said the violations in Ilwaco were “egregious.” Hazen’s certification to operate a plant in Washington was revoked for five years on May 24.
No action has been taken against Gustafson’s credential because, unlike Hazen, he has not tried to renew it, Bennett said. Gustafson did not respond to requests for comment.
Ecology’s investigation found he and Hazen falsified reports, failed to conduct required tests and violated the plant’s discharge permits from 2012 to 2015. The operators breached legally mandated operations standards and produced invalid lab results by improperly handling supplies, the probe concluded.
“If there were all these problems three or four years ago, why didn’t Ecology ever come to us with the issues before?” Hazen asked.
Making up a mess
After letting Hazen and Gustafson go, the city paid an operator from the engineering and consulting firm Gray & Osborne $105 an hour to run the wastewater treatment system.
Susan Welling arrived to find the plant in “disarray” and reported her concerns to Ecology. She couldn’t find the logbooks operators use to document daily operations, problems and performance.
Welling also told Ecology open, undated containers of a solution that’s needed for required water tests were left around the plant. It must be refrigerated and handled properly to get accurate results.
Hazen told the Observer the mayor must have been “messing with stuff” at the plant after he fired both of its operators. Before his termination, Hazen suspected Cassinelli had shut off the alarm on the building and made extra keys so he could get in without the security system logging the entry. Hazen said he’d been trying to get the alarm turned back on.
His browsing history showed he’d exchanged messages with the Oregon company, A&E Security and Electronic Solutions, that services the plant alarm system. The content of the four messages wasn’t immediately available.
Cassinelli said he doesn’t have a key to get into the plant and denied having the alarms turned off.
Bogus reporting busted
Ecology compliance specialist Pat Bailey reviewed city purchases for the plant. Invoices showed Hazen had ordered enough solution to conduct about half the tests required by the plant’s permit from October 2012 to July 2015. Despite not having enough solution to do the other half, he reported results to the state.
Bailey concluded “all the numbers were either made up or invalid.” Because she was suspicious of the unusually consistent numbers Hazen reported, she asked Ecology’s information-technology specialist to recover data from a plant meter. The numbers it recorded from December 2014 through August 2015 did not match those on Hazen’s reports.
During a recorded interview with Ecology officials in 2016, Hazen confirmed the meter the data was pulled from was the only one he used at the plant. The investigation found he reported data on days it had not been turned on.
Hazen denied falsifying documents but admitted to authorities he did not regularly follow procedures to adjust the meter, so it would record results accurately, according to court filings.
He told Ecology officials he had no knowledge of discrepancies between the recovered readings and his reports. He didn’t realize the meter stored data that could be downloaded later.
Last week, Hazen told the Observer he “just forgot” to mention during the interview with Ecology that he’d been using a second meter at the plant. It’s an older model that doesn’t have a logging system, he said.
Left with the dirty work
Tim Pfeifer took over as Ilwaco’s plant manager in late 2016. The job pays about $54,170 a year.
During a visit to the plant in May, Pfeifer was working with another employee to take care of long-neglected maintenance for the city’s wastewater treatment system.
Hazen said he and Gustafson took care of the plant as best they could, despite their time and city resources being “spread thin.” They’ve both found work in other industries.
“I’m done with wastewater for good,” Hazen said.