Pierce County: Employee should not get whistleblower protection | KNKX

Pierce County: Employee should not get whistleblower protection

Apr 15, 2019

A Pierce County employee who has gone public with criticisms of her boss, the chief death investigator, should not get whistleblower protection, county officials say.

Megan Quinn's complaints against Medical Examiner Thomas Clark earlier this year sparked investigations by the county and state, and prompted other current and former employees to come forward with their own allegations.

Quinn, the county's associate medical examiner, and others accuse Clark of subpar investigative practices and poor leadership of the office. Clark’s attorney has called the allegations untrue.

The county's whistleblower law protects employees who expose wrongdoing from retaliation.

But, county officials argue, Quinn forfeited her whistleblower status when she spoke to the media about her complaint.

County law states a whistleblower must report allegations of wrongdoing internally, to one of several designated county officials, before discussing the complaint with anyone else. 

Quinn filed a written complaint to the human resources director on Jan. 24. That same day, the county's communications director was contacted by reporters seeking comment on the allegations and Quinn appeared on KIRO TV.

County officials, in a letter to Quinn and her attorney, said Quinn spoke out too soon. 

"While Dr. Quinn was free to waive her confidentiality as the person who filed the complaint, to provide her complaints and allegations to entities other than those identified in the Pierce County Whistleblower Protection Code, and to not wait for the County's response to her complaint, her actions in doing so removed the protections of the code," the letter states.

Quinn's attorney, Joan Mell, said Quinn filed her complaint with the human resources director before speaking with reporters. 

Mell also said the county's interpretation of the law effectively forces whistleblowers to stay silent for an indefinite amount of time. 

"The idea that you can afford people whistleblower protections and you can encourage whistleblowing so that you know what your officials are doing and then you have to keep it a secret is nonsensical," Mell said in an interview. "And it's certainly contradictory of the First Amendment." 

County officials said they've hired a law firm to investigate Quinn's complaint. 

But they also placed Quinn on paid leave in February after accusing her of "insubordination," "disclosure of confidential information," and other charges.

Mell has called the county's actions retaliatory. A county spokeswoman has denied that. Clark remains on the job. 

Quinn has asked an administrative law judge to determine whether she should get whistleblower status.

An attorney for Pierce County argued Quinn doesn't have the right to request such a review, and the county determines who does or doesn't count as a whistleblower.

But Lorraine Lee, the state's chief judge in charge of administrative hearings, said this month that the issue should go before a judge. A hearing has not yet been scheduled.