By Peter Talbot | Originally published in the News Tribune
Pierce County has paid more than $4 million as part of a lawsuit for the wrongful termination of a former deputy prosecutor, according to his attorneys, nearly a year after jurors in the case found his firing violated public policy.
Doug Vanscoy worked for the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for more than 35 years and was chief of its civil division. He was fired in 2019 after he filed a whistleblower complaint regarding a $50,000 telecommunications contract he refused to approve for the office of County Executive Bruce Dammeier.
“Vanscoy was a dedicated public servant who was fired for doing his job and trying to prevent illegal government conduct,” his attorney, Jack Connelly, said in a news release announcing the payment Tuesday.
Vanscoy, who oversaw lawsuits against the county among other duties, wouldn’t sign the contract because he believed it was unlawful, according to court documents. He claimed that Prosecuting Attorney Mary Robnett and Dammeier’s executive counsel, Don Anderson, told him to back off and that his firing was retaliation for his attempts to address government misconduct.
The civil case went to trial last year, and jurors sided with Vanscoy in December, awarding him and his wife $2,041,118.70 in damages. Pierce County appealed the verdict, but Connelly said the county dropped it after Vanscoy filed his reply with the Court of Appeals. In his news release, the attorney said post-judgment requests for damages, prejudgment interest, attorneys’ fees and costs in court and on appeal brought the verdict to $4,202,866.15.
The Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon. It has previously declined to comment on the case because litigation was ongoing.
Attorneys for the county previously argued that Vanscoy had produced no evidence proving that his whistleblower complaint or the public records requests he later filed as part of a personal investigation of Dammeier’s office were significant factors in Robnett’s decision to request his resignation, according to the county’s trial brief. For 10 months before Robnett made the request, attorneys said she personally observed and received abundant information that Vanscoy’s leadership of the civil division was lacking and that he wasn’t engaged.
“Robnett had no confidence or trust in Vanscoy’s commitment to advancing the interests of the Civil Division and the citizens of Pierce County,” county attorneys wrote in a trial brief.
The telecommunications contract Vanscoy refused to approve was executed between Dammeier’s office and a Los Angeles law firm, Best, Best and Krieger, according to previous reporting from The News Tribune. Anderson had been tasked in spring 2017 with reviewing telecommunication franchise agreements granted by the county, and Anderson selected the firm to advise the county on the matters.
The firm started billing the county for its work in September 2017, according to public records requests. In December, a contract coordinator reviewed a request for $68,000 — which exceeded the $50,000 originally authorized — and sent it to the Prosecutor’s Office for review. On Jan. 18 the next year, Vanscoy said he wouldn’t sign the contract because it broke protocol.
Former deputy prosecutor Douglas Vanscoy.
Anderson allegedly “threatened” Vanscoy, according to his lawsuit, telling him in an email the same day, “You and your boss don’t want to go there. The review for the form is perfunctory and advisory. It does not allow the discretion to approve or disapprove.”
Without Vanscoy’s signature, Anderson added to the contract the word “approved,” in the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office’s signature space in February 2018, court records state. Connelly wrote in the civil complaint that Vanscoy believed Anderson’s conduct was fraudulent and constituted felony forgery.
Vanscoy filed the whistleblower complaint in April 2018, alleging that he had witnessed government misconduct involving forgery and the unlawful use of public funds. It also accused Anderson of violating the County Charter and state law by exceeding the authority of the Executive’s Office and forging the approval of the Prosecutor’s Office for an illegal contract.
An investigation into the whistleblower complaint was taken up by the county’s HR division, Connelly said, which hired a civil attorney. After several months, the investigation found that Anderson had violated state law and county code on deputy prosecuting attorneys’ powers but that his actions weren’t criminal.
After the findings came out, Anderson, who was also mayor of Lakewood for nearly 10 years, was reprimanded. Dammeier’s office also sent Robnett a letter admitting that Anderson was wrong, according to records, and he apologized for Anderson’s conduct.
Connelly has said Vanscoy was unhappy Anderson had “merely been slapped on the wrist,” and he began making public records requests to investigate forgery in the Executive’s Office, according to his lawsuit. Connelly said in his news release that on Oct. 10, 2019, Vanscoy reviewed documents from his request, and the next day he was terminated.
“Learning conclusively that Mr. Vanscoy would not simply turn a blind eye and deaf ear to government misconduct, nor abandon his pending requests for public records relating to that misconduct, Defendant Pierce County terminated Mr. Vanscoy the next day without warning or explanation,” Vanscoy’s attorneys wrote in the lawsuit.
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