Pacific County sheriff's vehicles

A new leadership team is taking charge of the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office early next month.

TOKELAND — The Shoalwater Bay Tribe paid the Washington State Patrol more than $15,000 to investigate then-Lt. Matt Padgett for alleged bullying and sexual harassment. Padgett, 34, is incoming Sheriff Robin Souvenir’s brother-in-law and soon-to-be chief civil deputy.

The internal investigation revealed Padgett used a blunt communication style and crude language that alienated some of his colleagues.

However, the most serious allegations made by three coworkers appear to be unfounded.

Two alleged harassment victims said Padgett never victimized them, and WSP saw no evidence of criminal conduct.

The investigation report offers insights into Souvenir’s leadership style and the challenges that can arise when there are personality conflicts, differing values and competing agendas inside of a small police agency.

Employee complaints

In early September — about a month after Padgett went on medical leave — a female officer filed a complaint with the tribe’s human resources office. She accused Padgett of filling out time cards incorrectly, threatening his subordinates with unconventional discipline methods, using profane language, humiliating coworkers, discouraging them from seeking professional opportunities and making inappropriate comments of a sexual nature.

Two days later, a male officer alleged Padgett used derogatory language, made fun of one female volunteer and commented inappropriately on another female volunteer’s appearance. A second male officer submitted a letter that alleged Padgett used demeaning disciplinary methods and frequently used crass language.

‘Sarcastic and cathartic’

The allegations of time card tampering were quickly dropped from the investigation. Around the time Souvenir was elected sheriff, Padgett resigned from his job under increasing pressure from tribal leaders. The tribe called the rest of the investigation off about two weeks after Padgett left.

The former lieutenant strongly denies the bullying and harassment allegations. However, he acknowledges that he was impatient with his staff at times, and has a “sarcastic and cathartic” sense of humor that offends some people.

“I think it’s a coping mechanism to keep from bringing the everyday stresses of this line of work home,” Padgett said on Dec. 17.

Souvenir told the Observer he was not able to comment because he is still subject to tribal laws that ban him from speaking about investigations and former employees’ job performance.

Frustration

After learning of the complaints, Souvenir, who was then Shoalwater Bay police chief, suggested a meeting where officers could confront Padgett. However, officers said they thought Padgett would punish them for speaking up.

“We’ve done that before and we’ve paid a very high price before,” the female officer later said. Shoalwater CEO Mike Rodgers quickly contracted WSP to conduct an internal investigation for a budgeted $17,000. Rodgers did not respond to an interview request.

During a Nov. 9 interview with WSP, Souvenir expressed frustration that the tribe called in a state agency without allowing him a chance to address the allegations.

“I never had the opportunity to do my job,” Souvenir said. He declined to answer many of the investigators’ subjective questions, saying he was not willing to speculate. He said he thought the complaints were motivated by a desire to prevent Padgett from getting promoted. Souvenir pointed out that they were filed just after the August Primary Election results showed he had a shot at winning the sheriff race. Padgett had long been viewed as his likely successor as Shoalwater police chief.

“It cannot be coincidence that this is being done right now,” Souvenir said.

‘You either love him or hate him’

Investigators spoke to the three complainants, Padgett, Souvenir, two reserve officers and one volunteer. Most said Padgett was a knowledgeable, often helpful boss who made himself available after hours. Padgett, they agreed, could be demanding. He had a strong personality and a tendency to speak his mind.

Some interviewees found those qualities endearing. Others said they dreaded falling out of Padgett’s somewhat fickle good graces. The female officer said Padgett handled most scheduling and discipline, which resulted in officers who had fallen out of favor getting relegated to undesirable shifts and subjected to greater scrutiny.

“If you’re his favorite officer, your life is really good, and if you’re not, it’s really bad,” the female officer said.

Souvenir acknowledged that his plainspoken right-hand-man isn’t for everyone.

“Matt is a very smart individual,” Souvenir told investigators. “He’s very loyal, but he’s arrogant. … You either love him or hate him.”

Differing perceptions

One alleged incident occurred in 2016, when the staff and a volunteer who did regular “ride-alongs” were being fitted for new uniforms. Officers said Padgett made “lewd” comments while the young woman was being measured. The woman later said that while the resulting controversy caused her distress, she had forgotten all about the actual incident. In her recollection, Padgett’s jokes did not single her out.

“It didn’t make me feel uncomfortable,” the volunteer said. “I didn’t think anything of it. It was just kind of — we were all joking around.”

Another incident occurred on July 4, 2017, when a reserve officer came in to work the holiday. Padgett and another male officer handcuffed the reserve to a rod in a cubby meant to hold coats, put the handcuff keys on the floor and told her to figure out how to free herself. According to officers, Padgett laughed at her as she tried get loose.

“I don’t think she would have felt like she could say anything,” a male officer said. “I didn’t feel like I could say anything.”

Padgett showed the Observer a photo in which the same officer appears to be laughing while standing close to the cuffed reserve.

The reserve told investigators she consented, and was cuffed for about three minutes as part of a lesson about not getting “tunnel vision” in stressful situations. She did not realize she could have easily freed herself by lifting the rod and sliding the cuffs off, she said.

“I didn’t take it personal. I actually thought it was funny,” she said. “It didn’t make me feel embarrassed or anything.”

The timing of the complaints was at odds with the tribe’s complaint procedure, which states that employees should make complaints within seven calendar days of the incident. Employees gave various reasons for waiting to report, including lack of time, a desire to resolve problems internally and fear of repercussions.

The C-word

While the witnesses’ statements about alleged sexual harassment lacked detail and differed significantly, they were fairly consistent about Padgett’s controversial communication style. Most said Padgett was good with members of the public, but could be controlling and insensitive with his coworkers.

Padgett, a former logger, often told a story from his time in the woods about a boss who urinated on his head. In Padgett’s mind, it was a funny, self-deprecating story about a bad boss, but some of his subordinates felt like it was told to diminish their concerns about work issues. He was “pretty much telling me, ‘Yep, I’m going to piss on your head if you screw up.’ That’s how I took it,” one male officer said.

The officers said Padgett discussed his own genitalia, and speculated about other people’s private parts and sex lives, something Padgett denies.

Of particular concern to them was Padgett’s liberal use of a vulgar term for female genitalia. The witnesses said he used it in casual conversation, and sometimes used it to describe specific women he disliked, including a tribal staffer, a medical professional and a former county official.

“I would say he used that word quite often,” the volunteer said. “It always made me cringe.”

She said she asked Padgett why he used the word a few times.

“He would just laugh about it and I would kind of like, blow it off,” she said.

“I did use it,” Padgett said. “I would say it depending on the setting. If there was somebody not affiliated with the department around or we were out in public — I would never use it outside of the confinement of my office. ... I wish they would have told me they were uncomfortable with the language I used, because I wouldn’t have continued using it.”

Desensitized

Souvenir told investigators he thought Padgett’s use of vulgarities was “unprofessional,” but felt it was important to allow officers a place to air their frustrations.

“In that setting, you’ve got to let people speak their mind,” Souvenir said.

The allegations of derogatory language towards women have led some to question whether Padgett is qualified to serve as chief of a sheriff’s office division that is currently entirely staffed by females. Padgett says he has addressed the issue with his future staff.

“I have assured them they have nothing to worry about as far as my behavior as a supervisor,” Padgett said. “They have nothing to worry about as far as how I am going to conduct my day-to-day business and the words I am going to use.”

In retrospect, Padgett said, he wishes he had been more attuned to his colleagues’ feelings. He became “desensitized” over time, he said.

“I know there’s no way for me to assure someone that things aren’t going to be bad,” Padgett said. “... All I can do is go in after Jan. 1 and prove that I’m not the person the rumors say I am. I am looking forward to the opportunity.”

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