PACIFIC COUNTY — Sheriff Scott Johnson made untrue statements to state officials in an effort to enroll a clerical employee in a pension plan for police and firefighters.
In a 2014 memo to the state Department of Retirement Services, Johnson claimed Chief Civil Deputy Denise Rowlett wore a deputy’s uniform to work and carried a gun. Rowlett has never worn a uniform to work. And she has never qualified to carry a firearm.
Johnson’s explanations for the misleading claims has evolved over time. In a late August deposition where he spoke under oath, Johnson first said he had no recollection of writing the memo, then acknowledged that it contained claims that weren’t true. In an interview this week, he chalked the dishonest statements up to “poor word choice.”
The deposition was part of an ongoing lawsuit filed by former Undersheriff Todd Fosse in 2016.
In 2015, Johnson fired Fosse without explanation. In an attempt to learn the reason for his dismissal, Fosse made several public records requests to the county. In 2016, he filed the lawsuit, alleging Johnson and others failed to provide complete and timely records, as required by state law. Although the county has since provided some additional records, Fosse learned through discovery that county officials may have omitted hundreds of text messages, emails and other records that may have contained information about Fosse’s dismissal. Johnson and other county officials deny they have violated the Public Records Act. Over the summer, Fosse’s attorney, Ben Compton, took Johnson’s deposition so he could learn more about how the county responded to the records request.
At the beginning of the hours-long deposition, Johnson told attorneys he was nervous about the public getting wind of it, saying “It could be used in a manner to make me look not good.” Depositions are usually not made available to the public unless parties to a lawsuit choose to share them. The Chinook Observer obtained a transcript of the deposition through a party familiar with the lawsuit.
The attorney appointed by the county to handle the case, Jeffrey Myers, has since asked for a protective order that would ban Fosse’s team from sharing video of the deposition. Among other things, Myers said, Todd Fosse’s wife Elaine’s alleged history of “making angry faces” at Johnson is evidence that she might act with “vindictive attitude and intent.”
“Sheriff Johnson is concerned that the video of the deposition, or an edited version thereof, may be used for political purposes, to try to embarrass him, or depict him in a false light or otherwise disparage him,” Myers wrote.
Through their attorney, the Fosses declined to comment for this story. Compton also declined to comment.
Denise Rowlett joined Pacific County Sheriff’s Office as an administrative assistant in 1999. The county enrolled her in the Public Employees Retirement System, a program used by many of Washington’s public servants. In 2008, she was promoted to Deputy Director of Emergency Management. After the previous chief civil deputy retired in late 2013, Johnson tapped Rowlett to take over. She started Jan. 1, 2014.
A chief civil deputy is essentially an office manager for a sheriff’s office. Rowlett does some potentially dangerous work outside the office. Because she is in charge of handling PCSO’s civil and legal processes, she sometimes helps out with foreclosures, paper service and taking children into protective custody. However, most of her work involves clerical tasks like payroll, and takes place behind a bulletproof partition in a secure office.
“She’s certainly my right-hand person and has a number of important responsibilities,” Johnson said during the deposition.
The state’s “Law Enforcement and Fire Fighters 2” system, or LEOFF, provides a lifetime pension and benefits package for firefighters and police who have put in their time and reached age 53. It’s a hard-earned and much-anticipated reward for the front-line emergency responders who do some of the state’s most dangerous work.
Only people in full-time, paid positions qualify. Police must also be “fully-commissioned,” meaning they have full authority to enforce the law in their jurisdiction. Reserve cops and volunteer firefighters aren’t eligible. Neither are jail corrections officers or limited-authority officers like State Parks rangers and Liquor and Cannabis Board enforcement agents, DRS spokesman Seth Miller said on Oct. 5.
In a Jan. 9, 2014, email, DRS employee Eleanor Conway asked county officials if Rowlett was eligible for LEOFF. Her predecessor, who was hired in 1997, retired in 2013 on a LEOFF pension.
On Feb. 20, Johnson sent Conway a memo, written on sheriff’s office letterhead.
“Denise Rowlett reports for duty both armed and in uniform, and unarmed in civilian clothing depending on the duties of the day,” Johnson wrote. “Her position as Chief Deputy has full police powers as prescribed by the Sheriff to carry out the civil duties as Chief Deputy.”
LEOFF rules state that chief civil deputies are eligible — provided they are law enforcement officers. Rowlett qualifies because sheriffs have the power to commission anyone they choose under their bond. The sheriff decides what kind of training the commissioned person gets, if any, but must take responsibility for anything the commissioned person does while working under his or her authority. Johnson provided a copy of an oath that shows he swore Rowlett in a little over a month after she started.
However, public documents, and Johnson’s own words suggest that Rowlett didn’t especially want to be involved in traditional law enforcement activities. As she prepared to move into her new role on Dec. 11, 2013, the county’s designated firearms training officer, Robin Souvenir, who is currently running against Johnson, wrote to Johnson. Rowlett had given the class her best effort, he said, but because she had little or no previous firearms training, she needed to significantly improve her shooting test score before she could carry a weapon at work.
“She scored 201 out of 460, passing is 322,” Souvenir said. He urged the sheriff to sign Rowlett up for use of lethal-force training, and encouraged him to give Rowlett significantly more time and shooting practice.
“Four hours is not enough time to get someone with no experience up to the point to being able to pass a law enforcement qualification. If someone could, they would either be a prodigy or we would seriously need to look at our training program, because we would not be doing our officers any favors,” Souvenir wrote.
Rowlett did not speak to the Chinook Observer for this story, nor did Souvenir or any member of his campaign team.
During most of the Aug. 27 deposition, Compton focused on trying to learn why dozens of text messages written around the time of Fosse’s firing allegedly went missing. At the end of the grueling day, which Johnson attended with several other county officials and his attorney, Compton turned suddenly to a series of questions about Rowlett.
Johnson said he vaguely remembered communicating with DRS about Rowlett, but confirmed that he had “no recollection whatsoever” about what they discussed.
“Didn’t you tell the board that Ms. Rowlett wore a uniform to work?” Compton asked.
“I don’t believe so,” Johnson replied.
“Because she hasn’t worn a uniform to work, has she?” Compton asked.
“No,” Johnson said. He noted that she does sometimes wear a fleece vest with an embroidered image of a badge that some volunteers, including his parents, wear.
“And she hasn’t carried a weapon at work, has she?” Compton continued.
“No,” Johnson said again.
When Compton asked Johnson if saying these things to the retirement board would have been untrue, Myers objected, saying the questions weren’t relevant. Compton argued that the questions were “relevant to his motivations in failing to produce records.”
Nearly five years into her tenure, Rowlett has no more practical law enforcement experience than she did when she was commissioned. While she has full arrest authority, she has never arrested anyone. She has never been to the state’s Basic Law Enforcement Academy, the entry-level course for police-recruits, or the less comprehensive academy for reserve officers and deputies. Although she has attended “civil school,” she hasn’t taken the civil service exam that is a starting-point for many law enforcement related positions.
After consulting with his attorney on Oct. 8, Johnson agreed to an interview at the Observer office. However, he asked both Observer Editor Matt Winters and PCSO Chief Criminal Deputy Pat Matlock to supervise the interview.
Johnson said he fully intended for Rowlett to be armed and in uniform at times, and ordered a gun and badge for her soon after she started. However, Rowlett ultimately decided she did not need to wear a uniform or carry a gun.
“She did not believe a firearm or uniform was needed for this position. Please remember she is a civil deputy, not a criminal deputy and it is not uncommon for civil deputies not to be in uniform or carry firearms,” Johnson wrote in a prepared statement that he provided during the interview.
Intentionally making false statements as part of an attempt to defraud any state retirement board is a felony. But Johnson said he had no intention of misleading the retirement board.
He pointed out that if he had used different words in his memo, they would have been true.
“That is a poor choice of wording,” Johnson said. “If I had said Denise ‘may’ [use a gun or wear a uniform], you wouldn’t be asking me these questions.”