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Whistleblower files retaliation complaint against Pierce County officials

Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press

A Pierce County employee who was placed on paid administrative leave Thursday has filed a retaliation complaint against county officials, according to a letter obtained by KNKX Public Radio.

An attorney for Megan Quinn, an associate medical examiner, says her client was placed on leave as a direct result of her whistleblower complaint filed last month against Medical Examiner Thomas Clark. The attorney, Joan Mell, also alleges Quinn has faced a lack of access to the Medical Examiner’s Office in order to perform timely work, cancellation of her requests for necessary testing, fabricating conflicts of interest, and other “hostile” and “wholly unwarranted” restraints.

The four-page letter, addressed to County Executive Bruce Dammeier and Human Resources Director Judy Archer, specifically accuses Clark and Deputy Executive Dan Grimm of retaliatory misconduct.

“Despite Dr. Quinn’s repeated reported concerns about Dr. Clark practicing below standard, bullying staff and citizens, destroying records, failing to timely disclose records and other abuse of his office, Pierce County has seen fit to remain silent as to his misconduct and has refused to place him on administrative leave,” Mell wrote in the complaint. “This has left the impression that Pierce County does not consider Dr. Clark’s misconduct sufficiently egregious to remove him from office and that Pierce County’s top officials support him.”

The letter also claims the county “widely disseminated” a news release that “portrays Dr. Quinn in a false light.” It alleges officials didn’t notify Quinn that she was under investigation, nor that they “intended to publicly disparage her” with an “orchestrated attack on her reputation.”  

County spokeswoman Libby Catalinich said Friday that the situation is "less than ideal for everyone involved." 

"(T)he decision was made to temporarily place Dr. Quinn on paid leave while an independent investigator conducts a thorough investigation of all allegations that have been made, whether those allegations have been made publicly or confidentially," Catalinich said. "We recognize this action may be misconstrued by some, but we are confident this is the right action for the employees of the Medical Examiner’s Office and the residents of Pierce County.” 

Pierce County placed Quinn on leave Thursday, citing "possible misconduct." She is under investigation for "potential conflict of interest," "insubordination" and "disclosure of confidential information," among other claims.

Mell says the county's action is "unforgivable." Her letter stressed that Clark hasn’t been the subject of similar actions, pointing to “disparate treatment,” and noted that Grimm “sent condescending correspondence to Dr. Quinn reprimanding her for seeking to do her job effectively for the benefit of Pierce County.”

What’s more, the complaint says the county’s actions have had a chilling effect on the ongoing internal investigation, which was launched as a result of Quinn’s whistleblower complaint.

The letter foreshadows an effort by others in the Medical Examiner’s Office to submit a no-confidence statement against Clark. Mell wrote that staff halted their apparently coordinated effort “because staff feared that Pierce County would similarly retaliate against them.”

“Pierce County’s retaliatory actions have silenced others within the office,” the letter states, pointing to a 2016 complaint against Clark in which staff accused him of bullying behavior. The findings from a report at the time noted Clark's "arrogantly vindictive" behavior, records show.  

“Pierce County has encouraged Dr. Clark to escalate his vindictive behaviors,” the most recent complaint states, adding that staff were prepared to corroborate Quinn's concerns about Clark. A letter from Julie Yust, a union representative for Teamsters Local Union 117 that represents medical examiner staff, confirmed that bargaining unit members were preparing to deliver the letter Friday before backing out amid Quinn's temporary ouster. The letter states the county "effectively silenced" their voices.

The county spokeswoman said Thursday that an internal investigation into Quinn’s whistleblower claims is ongoing. Quinn's attorney says neither her client or her fellow employees have heard from officials to record statements for that investigative effort.  

The retaliation complaint demands a retraction of the county’s claims against Quinn, reinstatement of her work without limitations, as well as a public apology. Her attorney also called for the removal of Clark from the Medical Examiner’s Office, as well as financial penalties and legal fees. If the county doesn’t respond to the complaint in 30 days, Mell requests an administrative law judge be appointed to review the matter.

Quinn will remain out of work until March 29, unless an investigation into her conduct concludes sooner. 

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.