The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Lou Marzeles

Criminal inquiry of Assessor urged


A letter from Klickitat County Assessor Darlene Johnson’s office to her opponent in this year’s election has prompted action urging a criminal investigation of Johnson.

In a letter signed by Mary Burket in the assessor’s office to Brian and Crista Schroder dated Sept. 9, the assessor claims the Schroders did not provide accurate or timely information on “itemized depreciation schedule, asset listing profit and loss statement, income statement and/or income tax reports from your limited liability company so that we can verify that the items listed on your personal property account with the head of household exemption were not claimed as assets on your limited liability company,” the letter stated.

Later the letter’s tone turned sharp: “You have willfully provided the assessor with a false listing of your taxable personal property with the intent to defraud,” it charged, “because your letter contained false information relating to the proper ownership of the personal property listed for Schroder’s Well Drilling LLC and thus subject to the penalty of 100 percent as outlined in WAC 458-12-110 (4). The statements in your letter were not result of negligence, inadvertence, accident, or simple oversight; it was intent to defraud.”

Monday Johnson sent to The Sentinel a copy of her response to a public records request from Ken Burrill concerning “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.” Seeking comment from Schroder for a story on the information, the document was provided to her for her review. The result was action from Schroder’s attorney, Johnson Dunn.

“From the point of view of the campaign—I’ve been hired as an advisor—we want to make it clear that the issue is not back taxes,” Dunn told The Sentinel Tuesday. “Even if the calculations by the assessor were accurate, the Schroders would owe less than $270 in last year’s assessment or not more than $900 for every year or penalty that could be applied. We are currently creating a trust into which the Schroders are placing $900. If ultimately they are shown to owe back taxes, that money will be used to pay those taxes. Otherwise, any remaining funds will be utilized to help veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.”

Dunn sent a letter to Prosecuting Attorney Lori Hoctor Tuesday asking her to bring in the state attorney general to conduct a criminal investigation of Johnson. He asserts Johnson unlawfully provided protected information in her letters on the Schroder matter.

“I have recently been retained to advise the Schroder for Assessor campaign in regard to the unlawful disclosure of information by the Klickitat County Assessor, in violation of Revised Code of Washington, (RCW) 84.40.340,” Dunn wrote to Hoctor. “I am formally requesting that you promptly refer this matter to the Washington State Attorney General for investigation.”

Dunn cited a letter to the editor that ran in The White Salmon Enterprise last week from Ken Burrill—“a known supporter of County Assessor Darlene R. Johnson, as well as her next-door neighbor,” he stated. “According to Mr. Burrill, the assessor’s office hastily provided him documents related to Ms. Johnson’s political opponent, Crista Schroder. While some tax records are public information, Mr. Burrill’s letter is clearly based on protected, confidential information, including information obtained through a randomized Department of Revenue audit and subsequent inquiry. It is equally as clear that the disclosure of such information is a crime: RCW 84.40.340. Mr. Burrill claims to have received the information pursuant to a ‘public records’ request. However, such information is expressly exempted from disclosure under Washington’s public information act. RCW 42.56.230(4). That provision specifically exempts from public disclosure any ‘information required of any taxpayer in connection with the assessment or collection of any tax’ where such disclosure is otherwise prohibited, citing RCW 84.40.340.”

In his letter Burrill said the Schroders improperly claimed a “household” personal property exemption. “Burrill could only be referring to a recent, abrupt reversal from the assessor’s office that was announced in a letter to the Schroders dated Sept. 9, 2014,” Dunn wrote. “However, Ms. Johnson personally provided it to her neighbor Burrill on Sept. 10—before the Schroders themselves received it. Apparently, 24 hours was sufficient time for Burrill to innocently ‘hear a rumor,’ file a public records request, and receive the confidential information. More likely than not, by disclosing this information in this egregious manner, Ms. Johnson committed the additional offense of Official Misconduct. RCW 42.20.080. That statute mandates that any public official who willfully violates the laws regulating her official conduct shall be guilty of a gross misdemeanor. The available evidence, even at this early date, clearly demonstrates that Ms. Johnson’s conduct was willful, not merely ignorant.”

Addressing Hoctor, Dunn added, “As Prosecuting Attorney, it is your duty to investigate and prosecute criminal offenses. However, you are required to serve as the civil attorney for Klickitat County and its various departments, including the assessor’s office. Where, as here, there is a potential conflict-of-interest, it is appropriate to refer criminal matters to the Washington Attorney General for prosecution. Otherwise, you would have to lead a criminal investigation of the assessor’s office, while also serving as its civil attorney. The potential effects of the general election must also be taken into consideration. Should, as we expect, Ms. Schroder prevail, Ms. Johnson would claim any investigation by your office was skewed to protect or curry favor with the in-coming County Assessor. Finally, I would point out that any thorough investigation would necessarily require statements and information from you or your office. At least one thing seems clear: Ms. Johnson did not seek your counsel before disclosing this information. It appears to be an unprecedented act, occurring with unprecedented speed. This, of course tends to show that Ms. Johnson acted purely in her own self-interest—in an ill-advised attempt at political sabotage. Therefore, it will be important to establish how your office would typically address a public records requests, and in what time frame.”

Dunn told The Sentinel, “The real issue here is a clear abuse of power. We’re not sure which is more surprising, the abuse of power or the frankly ham-fisted manner in which it was carried out. In either event, that’s exactly the type of petty and personal abuse of office that led Crista to enter the race in the first place. Frankly it couldn’t serve as a finer example of what she’s running to put an end to.”

Johnson was contacted for comment for this story but did not reply by press time.


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