The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Lou Marzeles

WSP, Attorney General's office called in to investigate Assessor


Klickitat County Prosecuting Attorney Lori Hoctor has asked the Washington State Patrol and the state Attorney General’s office to conduct an investigation of Klickitat County Assessor Darlene Johnson. The investigation arises from charges leveled at Johnson by an attorney for her opponent in this year’s election, Crista Schroder.

Johnson sent a letter to Schroder and her husband last month regarding an apparent assessment discrepancy on their personal property and what Johnson called an erroneous head of household designation. The letter claimed the Schroders were willfully attempting to defraud the assessor’s office. In response to requests for public records regarding the Schroders, Johnson also disclosed the findings of a random audit of the Schroders by the Department of Revenue (DOR), though details of specific property items were redacted. The Schroders and their attorney maintained it was unlawful for Johnson to disclose any of the information from the DOR audit to the public. Their attorney sent a letter to Hoctor last week calling for her to recuse herself from the case and to bring in outside investigators.

In a message on The Sentinel’s Facebook page Monday, Deputy Prosecutor Kate Matthews wrote, “To clear up some obviously incorrect assumptions about Lori Hoctor’s relationship to the allegations against Ms. Johnson: Lori did not know anything about the public record request concerning Ms. Schroder’s taxes—nothing about its existence and nothing about the documents produced in response—until she read about it in The Sentinel. She received the letter from Ms. Schroder’s attorney on Wednesday, Sep. 24, after The Sentinel had gone to press. Lori is, appropriately, requesting that the entire matter be investigated by the Washington State Patrol and the Attorney General’s Office. This is standard procedure for her office and did not require a demand letter from Ms. Schroder’s attorney.”

Hoctor has acknowledged that she did review Johnson’s letter to Schroder and her husband before it was sent. Johnson says Hoctor raised no objections to the letter.

In an interview with The Sentinel Friday, Johnson said she was totally within legal limits in her actions regarding the Schroders.

“I’m aware of the law, and I redacted all of the information that was used to determine assessed value,” Johnson said, referring to data provided to Ken Burrill and Peter Leon in response to requests for public records. “It’s all been redacted. So there was no violation.”

Johnson said she was concerned to act promptly in response to the requests. “There was the Mr. Leon and the Mr. Burrill requests. And I followed WAC 44-14-040, which means that if I redact something, I have to explain why it’s been redacted, and I included some RCWs for you that, you know, if only a portion of a record is exempt from disclosure, but the remainder is not exempt, the public records officer will redact the exempt and leave the non-exempt portions. It’s pretty clear, and it’s designed for people to get access to information.”

Johnson said the letter was sent because of what presented as a discrepancy in the Schroders’ personal property listing after a DOR audit in 2013. “The Department of Revenue audits a significant number of personal property listings each year,” she said, “and if your property listing is audited and they find omitted property on your listing, you can be subject to a 25 percent penalty on omitted property going back up to three years. So this is our standard, this is just the way it is for omitted property. So that’s the issue. In the audit from the Department of Revenue, it was done in 2013, and it was her 2012 assessment for 2013 taxes done in 2013, and they discovered that she had $29,000 in omitted property. It’s a random audit. I don’t pick who gets audited. I have no control whatsoever over that.”

Another issue Johnson saw in the Schroders’ information had to do with head of household qualifying. “When that [DOR] audit came through in 2013,” she recalled, “we were quite concerned because originally our ratio was even lower; the items on the itemized depreciation schedule were on that personal property account. And they weren’t showing up on the account that the Department of Revenue audited. And so we explained to the Department of Revenue that they were on a separate account—if you look at the public records request, you can see which items they say are on this account, and this comes from the itemized depreciation schedule. So I was concerned because the score was so low.” Johnson said she initially hadn’t looked closely enough at the audit’s itemized depreciation schedule. “We were concerned about it; it raised a flag for us, so I had my technical services guy run a query for multiple personal property accounts going to the same address where one of those accounts had a head of household exemption. And I think we came up with about 11 of them. And some of them were totally legitimate. They’d already provided their itemized depreciation schedule in the file. We could see one was a husband that had a business, one was a wife that had a business. There was only one head of household. It was completely legitimate. But some of them didn’t. And the ones that we couldn’t tell, we sent out a letter, which you’ve seen, asking for a copy of the itemized schedule. We sent that to everybody, and then we went through and went to resolve each one of these. We’ve had people that said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know why I have two accounts, I don’t know how this happened, just merge them together, we’ll pay, just send us an amended statement.’ That is simple oversight; you just go forward. In Ms. Schroder’s case, she insisted that she owned it personally, and I had an issue with it because when we started looking at the audit, it says it’s on the itemized depreciation of the LLC. So what am I supposed to do?”

It was at that point, Johnson said, that a letter went out to the Schroders accusing them of attempting to willfully defraud. Asked if she still considered them to be committing fraud, Johnson responded, “It certainly appears that way. I’m willing to say that if they can show me the WAC that I sent to you where it’s reasonable cause, fine, there won’t be any penalties. But you have to have reasonable cause. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, because she’s running for an office, I have to treat her special.’”


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