SOUTH BEND — Earlier this month, County Prosecutor Mark McClain asked the state Attorney General’s Office to give an opinion about potential conflicts of interest for two newly elected officials: Commissioner Michael “Hawk” Runyon and Sheriff Robin Souvenir. Both men say they’ve taken measures to prevent conflicts of interest.
Unanswered legal questions
Attorney General Bob Ferguson is the chief law officer in the state. As prosecutor, McClain serves as the county’s lawyer. Prosecutors can ask the AG to provide official opinions on legal questions that arise in the course of their work. According to the AGO website, “While these formal legal opinions are not binding in any way, they have historically been given ‘great respect’ and ‘great weight’ by the courts.”
While McClain didn’t mention Runyon or Souvenir by name, his request appears to be related to concerns about whether their personal and business relationships could create legal problems for the county. McClain asked five questions:
1. Does the continued employment in the Sheriff’s Office of the sheriff’s spouse as a 911 telecommunicator constitute a beneficial interest in a contract under the supervision of a municipal officer, in violation of RCW 42.23.030?
2. Should the Sheriff’s Office policy regarding siblings be regarded as applying to a brother-in-law relationship?
3. If this policy applies to a brother-in-law relationship, would the sheriff hiring his brother-in-law constitute granting a special privilege or exemption to another, in violation of RCW 42.23.070(1)?
4. Does a judicial finding that an individual violated RCW 42.23.030, and order to forfeit office, constitute a finding of malfeasance, such that the individual is disqualified from holding public office in this state?
5. Is a business agreement by a county commissioner leasing a business to a relative, and precluding the county commissioner from receiving any profit from business with the county, sufficient to avoid violating RCW 42.23.030?
Working with his wife
Some of the questions concern Souvenir and his wife, Jaime Souvenir, who has been a Pacific County emergency dispatcher for more than a decade. The Sheriff’s Office oversees the emergency communications division. Emergency Communications Director Tim Martindale answers to Souvenir, and the sheriff can make disciplinary, organizational and financial decisions that would directly affect dispatchers. Souvenir was open about his wife’s employment during his campaign.
Souvenir said he, Martindale and his wife have made changes to limit his influence over her employment.
“Before I ran, my wife was a lead telecommunicator. What she decided to do was step down to add additional layers between she and I,” Souvenir said on Jan. 29. Now, she answers to the lead dispatcher, who answers to Martindale. Jaime Souvenir formerly served as shop steward for the dispatchers’ union, but she voluntarily stepped down from that role too.
Sheriff Souvenir said he has also placed Undersheriff Ron Davis in charge of all disciplinary and other decisions related to his wife’s employment.
“I’ve delegated that to the undersheriff and have nothing to do with that,” Souvenir said.
Part of the legal concern, Souvenir said, is that he could be considered to be receiving compensation from his wife, because she draws a paycheck from the county. Elected leaders can’t make decisions or enter into contracts that would benefit them personally. Souvenir said his wife actually makes less money now.
“She’s given up a lot. She’s given up money, she’s given up leadership roles, the shop steward role to try to help with the separation,” Souvenir said.
Who is a relative?
Souvenir also chose to hire his wife’s brother, Matt Padgett, to serve as his chief civil deputy. Padgett worked under Souvenir at the Shoalwater Tribal Police Department for several years. His employment there ended several months ago, amidst a controversy about his alleged conduct.
Souvenir argues that Padgett is a strong choice for the role because he has both law enforcement and managerial experience, and they have a history of working well together.
However, the decision has prompted some to make allegations of nepotism. Souvenir correctly pointed out that, while the Sheriff’s Office and the county both have policies that ban county officials from hiring or supervising their own relatives, neither policy specifically names siblings-in-law as being a type of “relative.”
Other questions concern County Commissioner Michael “Hawk” Runyon, long-time owner of Hawk’s Superior Rock, a quarry and rock-supply company. Over the years, Runyon has made a considerable amount of money providing materials for Pacific County. According to a financial disclosure statement filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission, the county paid Hawk’s Rocks $163,842 the year before he ran for office.
Runyon said he kept his dump truck, but turned the rock business over to his daughter, Rosalyn Erickson, who has helped run it for years.
“She has taken over. She has leased the gravel operation with an opportunity to buy,” Runyon said. Secretary of State records show Erickson formed a new corporation, Beans and Rocks, LLC, on Jan. 2. The documents list her as a “managing member.” She is the sole officer.
Runyon said he would recuse himself from any decisions concerning the quarry.
“I’m still going to be abstaining from anything that has to do with my former business. I’m an honest guy. I’m not trying to cheat anybody,” Runyon said.
A spokesperson for the attorney general said it would likely take weeks or even months to issue an opinion.