Sheriff hiring his dad raises questions

Candidates for Pacific County sheriff worked to make their case to primary election voters at a fall forum. From left: Incumbent Scott Johnson, Robin Souvenir and Sean Eastham. Souvenir won the race.

SOUTH BEND — Ferrill “LeRoy” Johnson, 80, isn’t just Sheriff Scott Johnson’s dad. For now at least, he’s also Pacific County’s new undersheriff — Sheriff Johnson appointed his father, a retired county road-crew worker with no law enforcement experience, to his new job a week before losing his bid for a third term as sheriff.

The elder Johnson has not taken even the most basic steps required of law enforcement job candidates, and his appointment is a clear violation of both county and sheriff’s office nepotism policies. Nonetheless, the decision has created a mess for the county’s commissioners and general administration, because they may not have the authority to stop the sheriff from putting his dad on the payroll.

The Chinook Observer made several attempts to reach the sheriff through email, phone and text message. He did not respond.

There are conflicting dates on the sheriff’s Certificate of Appointment, and his father’s Oath of Office. The appointment and oath are printed on the same page. Sheriff Johnson dated and signed the appointment portion on Oct. 31. The oath portion originally said it was “subscribed and sworn” in October.

However, someone scratched out the month and wrote in “November” by hand. The sheriff filed the form at the Pacific County Auditor’s Office on Wednesday, Nov. 7. However, the same document says LeRoy Johnson signed his oath at the time of notarization on Friday, Nov. 9, which was then two days in the future.

The outgoing sheriff hasn’t had a second-in-command since former Undersheriff Ron Clark resigned to work at a hospital in June. When Clark left, the sheriff said he would wait until fall to make a new appointment. He did not give any indication of whom he might select, but most people in law enforcement predicted he would choose Chief Criminal Deputy Pat Matlock or another veteran deputy who is already a member of his command staff.

Under state law, all law enforcement officers must pass a background investigation, psychological examination and polygraph test. The county expects deputy job candidates to meet these requirements as a condition of hire.

LeRoy Johnson has not done the background check or tests, County Administrator Kathy Spoor said on Nov. 13.

Sheriffs have unique legal privileges, including the right to commission almost anyone, so Johnson can make his father a law enforcement officer. However, it’s generally understood commissions should only be given to people with the proper training and experience.

This is not the first time Johnson has drawn criticism for liberal use of his commissioning authority — earlier this fall, the Observer revealed Johnson had commissioned an administrative staffer with no law enforcement training, then misstated her job duties while enrolling her in the state’s pension program for police and firefighters.

Rumors circulated that Sheriff Johnson might have hired his father to get him enrolled in the same pension fund, known as LEOFF 2. However, LEOFF Senior Research and Policy Analyst Ryan Frost said that wouldn’t happen.

“There is no way he will get into LEOFF without five years of service,” Frost said.

LeRoy Johnson does not meet the basic requirements outlined in PCSO’s undersheriff job description, which says the candidate must have a minimum of five years of law enforcement experience and a Certificate of Basic Training from the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.

There is no upper age limit for entering police academy, Peace Officer Certification Manager Tisha Jones said. However, all recruits must pass a medical examination and a physical ability test that involves a 300-meter sprint, sit-ups, push-ups and a 1.5-mile run. Recruits also sign a form acknowledging they will be hit, kicked, punched, tackled and handcuffed repeatedly during academy.

The new undersheriff did not respond to an interview request. Even if he qualified for academy, he wouldn’t be able to get in before his son’s term expired — most recruits spend several months on an academy wait list.

Undersheriffs are at-will employees who serve at the pleasure of their sheriffs. According to the county’s job description, last updated in 1997, the undersheriff supervises patrol deputies and lower-ranking command staff, serves on boards, formulates and recommends new programs and equipment and reviews disciplinary matters. He or she also performs evaluations, creates policies and serves as the project coordinator for the Tri-Agency Narcotics Network, which has not existed for years. The undersheriff is commissioned to act on behalf of the sheriff and to carry firearms. Historically, Pacific County undersheriffs have also answered calls for service and supervised some investigations.

Speaking on background, a Washington Association of Police Chiefs and Sheriff’s staffer with knowledge of police recruitment practices said virtually all undersheriffs have experience in law enforcement. He called Johnson’s decision to hire an octogenarian relative with no known police training “a little unusual.”

“In government, nepotism is typically the practice of those with appointing authority giving jobs to relatives,” according to Municipal Research and Services Center, a nonprofit that provides guidance to small governments in Washington. Hiring family members is not illegal. It can be ethical to hire a relative if he or she is qualified for the job, hired through the standard procedure, and given pay that is commensurate with that of their peers.

State law says almost nothing about nepotism, but many cities and counties, including Pacific County, have their own guidelines.

Employment policy 2.2.2 says “No person of the immediate family should be employed in the county’s service in the same department or office.” The county’s definition of “immediate family” includes parents.

The PCSO policy manual defines nepotism as “the practice of showing favoritism to relatives in appointment, employment, promotion or advancement by a public official in a position to influence these personnel decisions.” PCSO employees are prohibited from supervising, or being supervised by anyone who is a relative. They are also prohibited from evaluating, disciplining or making other types of personnel decisions about relatives.

The undersheriff role pays $29.21 an hour in the first year. That works out to about $5,082 per month, or $60,984 per year, not including benefits. As of Nov. 13, LeRoy Johnson was not on the county payroll.

“At this point his dad is not qualified,” Spoor, the county administrator, said. County leaders don’t approve of Johnson’s decision, but they aren’t sure they’ll be able to stop it because they have very limited authority over a separately elected official. County commissioners decide what the sheriff’s budget will be, Spoor said, but once the budget is turned over to him, he controls how it is spent.

Last week, she and the commissioners consulted with Prosecutor Mark McClain, who serves as the county’s attorney. McClain confirmed that Johnson is acting in violation of both PCSO and county policy. However, elected officials don’t have to sign county policies, and Johnson didn’t.

Generally, when there is a potential new hire, the commissioners approve it at a board meeting, then County Auditor Joyce Kidd, who handles payroll, takes it from there. Commissioners expected to discuss LeRoy Johnson’s appointment at the regular Nov. 13 meeting.

“I fully anticipate they are not going to confirm that,” Spoor said. If Johnson keeps his dad on anyhow, Kidd, also an elected official, will have to decide whether to put LeRoy Johnson on the books.

Spoor said the commissioners even considered removing the undersheriff position from the sheriff’s office budget to prevent the hire, but that requires a process that wouldn’t be complete until some time in December.

“I think that is one of the things the public doesn’t necessarily understand,” Spoor said. “The commissioners’ authority is limited.”

Most incoming sheriffs make significant changes to the command-staff lineup after taking office.

When Scott Johnson took office in 2010, he demoted then-undersheriff Ron Clark, and replaced him with Todd Fosse, a long-time reserve officer who helped run his campaign. Johnson abruptly fired Fosse in 2015 and reinstated Clark.

Earlier this year, Fosse filed a wrongful termination suit against the sheriff. That case is ongoing.

Sheriff-elect Robin Souvenir said LeRoy Johnson’s law enforcement career will be brief — if Johnson is still on the job when he takes office on Jan. 1, he intends to appoint someone else.

“We’ll probably change that one up,” Souvenir said on Nov. 8. He has not publicly announced his decisions about the command staff lineup yet.

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