SOUTH BEND — After spending months learning the arcane details of how sewage is cleaned well enough to be discharged, the defense lawyer representing former Ilwaco wastewater treatment plant manager Warren Hazen concluded his client wasn’t just “not guilty,” he was actually innocent of the charges brought against him.
After a two-day trial last week, Superior Court Judge J. Andrew Toynbee immediately ruled that Hazen did not commit nine counts of “offering a false instrument for filing or record” between January and September 2015. The charges brought by the Washington State Attorney General’s Office stemmed from allegations that Hazen falsified records about Ilwaco sewer operations.
Hazen’s acquittal clears his name more than a year and a half after charges were brought in November 2017. The trial was originally scheduled for last August. Centralia-based public defender David Arcuri said the long process was due to the complexity of analyzing hundreds of pages of sewer plant records, including 900 pages provided by the state late last year.
“I had a great teacher,” Arcuri said in an interview last week, referring to Hazen, who walked him through how treated sewage effluent is tested to make sure its chemical properties won’t harm the environment. This crash course in such a specialized field was “the greatest advantage I had” in fighting the state’s charges, he said.
How charges came to be filed
The charges came after the Washington State Department of Ecology and the AG’s Counsel for Environmental Protection investigated allegations of mismanagement at the plant.
Former Ilwaco Mayor Mike Cassinelli fired Hazen and his son-in-law and fellow plant operator David Gustafson in 2015. Cassinelli did not give a reason for firing them at the time. Later, he claimed it was because an investigation found that the two spent much of their work time surfing the web. The plant operator who took over after Hazen and Gustafson were fired told city and Department of Ecology officials she had concerns about the way the plant had been managed.
Hazen denied the allegations. He and his wife, Laurie Hazen, said the case was retaliation after Hazen raised concerns about alleged unethical disposal of waste products and dirty water in the Port of Ilwaco.
Pacific County Superior Court Judge Doug Goelz, who has since retired, recused himself from the case. Instead, the case was assigned to Toynbee, who is based in neighboring Lewis County.
Under Washington law, offering a false statement for filing or record is a Class C felony. Each of the nine charges carried a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Hazen was offered a plea deal in which he would have served time behind bars on three of the charges, but turned it down because he had done nothing wrong, Arcuri said.
Clear path to victory
Arcuri, a veteran criminal defense attorney who spent years as a prosecutor, said a clear understanding of the sewage treatment plant’s records provided “overwhelming” evidence that “not only was Hazen ‘not guilty,’ he was innocent.”
The case was so clear-cut that Arcuri said he has been telling colleagues and others for weeks that he was going to be having a fun time June 10 and 11 in South Bend.
“I’m going to be winning a trial against two assistant attorneys general.” He was so confident, a week before the trial he drafted an order for the judge finding Hazen not guilty — the one judge signed minutes after the prosecution closed its arguments the morning of June 12.
In essence, the state’s case was that the official reports Hazen filed didn’t match the data recorded by a chemical-testing unit.
The unit’s internal data appeared to show tests being performed at odd hours. Sometimes the machine’s results matched those provided by Hazen, but often not.
However, Arcuri said the state’s expert witness had never actually used the machine. No one testified that the machine was any good.
Documentation provided by the state showed that in the months after Hazen and Gustafson were fired, half the machine’s figures didn’t match reports filed by the interim sewage plant operator hired to replace them, Arcuri said.
The prosecution was a “huge waste of government time and money,” he said. “They did not have a case and I knew it was a bad case from the get-go.”
Arcuri said that in his career he has obtained many “not guilty” verdicts when the state failed to adequately prove guilt, but he can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he had a client like Hazen who was actually completely innocent of the charges brought against him.