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Assessor report released by Washington State Patrol

 


The Washington State Patrol (WSP) has forwarded its report on Klickitat County Assessor Darlene Johnson to the Prosecuting Attorney’s office “for review and filing of any appropriate charges related to public disclosure laws.” The report is dated Oct. 16, 2014, but was released to The Sentinel only Monday, Nov. 3, in response to a public records request.

Detective David Ortner’s report indicates that an official at the Department of Revenue (DOR) considers Johnson to have violated state law protecting confidential taxpayer information that came from a DOR audit. It also suggests that Johnson evidenced a conflict of interest in personally responding to a request for personal records related to her opponent in the current election, Crista Schroder. It relates further that Johnson’s letter to Schroder and her husband accusing her of willfully intending to defraud the county was written by Johnson, then given to staffer Mary Burket to sign “as if she had written it” without Burket reading the letter. Burket did not know about the letter with her signature on it until after news of it ran in The Sentinel.

“On Oct. 8-9, 2014, I talked to David Saavedra, Program Coordinator of the Property Tax Division of the Washington State Department of Revenue,” Ortner’s report says, “who advised the DOR is an oversight agency for all county Assessor’s Offices and provides interpretation of rules/laws if the assessors have questions. Saavedra advised he sent an e-mail to all assessors’ offices in May 2011 indicating that case law prohibits the disclosure of tax information obtained through a DOR audit. This e-mail was composed in response to a Washington Court of Appeals decision in Hatiey H. Hoppe & Assocs. v. King County. Saavedra indicated he believed, in light of the court ruling, Johnson provided non-disclosable tax information to [Ken] Burrill when fulfilling the public records request.”

Saavedra also sent a letter to Johnson as recently as Oct. 2 reiterating the DOR’s position on disclosing certain tax information, the report discloses.

Ortner’s 2,600-word report includes a detailed timeline of the events leading to the WSP investigation and the steps taken during the investigation, along with corresponding findings. “The in-question documents, which were publically released by the Assessor’s Office, included tax information of Crista and Brian Schroder and Schroder’s Well Drilling LLC based on a Department of Revenue (DOR) audit from 2013,” Ortner wrote in his report. “A question of eligibility for a head of household tax exemption arose from the DOR audit. The Assessor’s Office requested verifying documents from the Schroders to determine if they qualified for the head of household tax exemption due to possible conflicting documentation with the DOR. The Assessor’s Office sent this request letter to the Schroders on Aug. 25, 2014, and provided a timeline of 14 days to produce the records. Crista Schroder sent a letter to the Assessor’s Office on Sep. 8, 2014, requesting more time to produce the documentation. On Sep. 9, 2014, the Assessor’s Office sent a letter to Brian and Crista Schroder denying the requested extension and detailed why they believed the Schroders ‘willfully provided the assessor with a false listing of your taxable personal property with the intent to defraud.’"

Then on Sep. 10, Ken Burrill made a public records request on all correspondence between Crista Schroder and/or Schroder Well Drilling regarding their personal property assessment for 2013 for 2014 taxes and 2014 for 2015 taxes. Johnson fulfilled the request the same day, hand-delivering it to Burrill’s home. According to the report, Burrill said “he was co-manager of Johnson’s campaign when she campaigned successfully for Klickitat County Assessor in 2010. Burrill also stated he is neighbors with Johnson and sold her the property she now lives on. Burrill stated he heard rumors about Schroder several weeks prior to making the public disclosure request specific to her property taxes and a head of household exemption. Burrill would not disclose the identity of the person who provided him the information about Schroder, but alluded to the fact that the person who provided the information worked in the courthouse.”

Ortner writes he talked with Dan McCabe, public disclosure officer for the Assessor’s office, who said normally he would be the one to respond to a records request, but given that he was out of the office at the time, Johnson fulfilled the request herself. Of this act, the report states, “It was also common for Johnson to fulfill requests when McCabe was out of the office, but in this case it appears to be evidence of a conflict of interest.”

The report says that Ortner asked Schroder on Oct. 9 if she had given permission to release her tax information to Johnson or anyone else in the Assessor’s office; Schroder said she did not. “On Oct. 10, 2014, I called the Assessor’s Office and talked to Mary Burket, Levy and Personal Property Specialist,” Ortner writes. “Burket stated she did not compose the Sep. 9, 2014, letter to the Schroders which indicated they willfully provided a false listing of their taxable personal property with the intent to defraud. Burket stated Johnson composed the letter and had Burket sign it as if she had written it. Burket stated she was an ‘at will’ employee and felt compelled to sign it. Burket stated she did not read the content of the letter but heard about it from citizens when her name appeared in the local newspaper.”

Burket added moreover that she would not have released the tax information that Johnson did, based on her 13 years of experience as a personal property specialist. “In fact, Burket detailed a similar request she had received in the past which she denied due to the confidential information being requested,” the WSP report relates.

Ortner states in his report that Johnson related to him that she had not consulted Prosecuting Attorney Lori Hoctor on fulfilling the public records request from Burrill “because she felt she was redacting the Schroders’ confidential information properly when fulfilling Burrill’s request. I asked Johnson if she had discussed the Schroders’ tax situation with anyone outside the Assessor’s Office before Burrill’s request came in, and she stated she had.”

The people with whom Johnson discussed Schroder’s situation were several people at the Bingen Huckleberry Festival on Sep. 5-7. None of them worked for the Assessor’s office.

“Johnson advised she told some people about the Schroders’ head of household exemption at the Huckleberry Festival because Johnson believed the Schroders were claiming an exemption they were not eligible to receive,” Ortner writes. “Johnson also stated she talked to several people about the Schroders’ exemption since Burrill’s public records request. Johnson indicated she composed the Sep. 9, 2014, letter that was signed by Mary Burket and sent to the Schroders claiming they willfully defrauded the Assessor’s Office. Johnson stated she writes letters for her staff all the time.”

The WSP has one remaining report forthcoming on Klickitat County personnel, on Sheriff’s Office deputies putting in time and resources to support a candidate in the current election. The Sentinel was advised to expect that report soon and will cover it immediately upon receipt.

 

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