An investigation found no hiring policies were violated but noted there is no consistent process for filling leadership positions.
By Lizz Giordano / Crosscut.com / April 13, 2023
Alleging “self-dealing and unfair advancement by senior staff,” a union representing deputy prosecutors in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office recently called for an investigation into the 2022 creation and selection process for a new well-paid leadership position.
An outside attorney contracted to investigate the hiring process has since issued a report stating they did not find any violations of existing policies or requirements related to the allegations of favoritism from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Association. Prosecutor Leesa Manion and her predecessor both maintained they have the authority to appoint positions as needed, and that the hire in question underwent a fair and open process.
The allegations came a year after the office acknowledged ethical violations in 2021 as part of settling a nepotism complaint. That complaint alleged that the office had hired and given special treatment to two senior county officials’ adult children and a daughter-in-law. In response, Prosecutor Dan Satterberg promised new policies and training at the time.
“[W]e believe that extraordinary steps are needed to restore trust and confidence in the leadership of our office,” stated the union’s November letter, addressed to Manion shortly after she won election to the prosecutor position but before she officially took office in January.
The letter accused office leadership of crafting a new Juvenile Division Assistant Chief position in early 2022 with a specific veteran attorney in mind and favoring him for the role both before and during the hiring process. Records show Satterberg initially appointed the attorney, then reversed course and posted the opening amid pushback, but later hired the same attorney in June. Manion served as chief of staff and was campaigning to succeed Satterberg during the process.
Satterberg declined an interview for this story through Prosecuting Attorney’s Office spokesperson Casey McNerthney. Through him, Satterberg reiterated he did have the authority to appoint assistant chiefs.
Manion asked to respond via email to questions about the allegations. Crosscut sent her office multiple rounds of written questions regarding the hiring process and investigation.
“The PAO [Prosecuting Attorney’s Office] is committed to running fair and open hiring processes. It has long been our practice to create advertisements that list the traits and qualifications we are seeking for any advertised position,” Manion responded. “As the elected Prosecuting Attorney, I also have the right to appoint any of the leaders within the office.”
The union letter alleged the hiring process contradicted previous assurances from leadership that hiring would be fair and transparent. The union also asked Manion tocreate new policies and processes against tailoring job qualifications for an individual and require “open and transparent process” for hiring positions at or above assistant chief level.
In response to the letter, Manion hired Kelli Schmidt, owner of Advance Law Office, to conduct an investigation of the hiring process at a cost of $20,000, paid by the office. Schmidt issued an 11-page report in January concluding that no gifts or money were exchanged related to the hiring and there was “no evidence of any existing PAO policies, requirements, or consistent past practices that were not followed.”
Complaints about the hiring process for the Juvenile Division Assistant Chief were also sent to the Office of the Ombuds, according to interim ombuds Kymber Waltmunson.
“We did not receive a complaint that was actionable based on our authorizing code language,” Waltmunson wrote in an email. “We closed the matter … and don’t anticipate further action by our office related to those two contacts.”
Text messages show early talks
Text and emails acquired through a Crosscut records request show that Jimmy Hung, chief of the Juvenile Division, worked to create the new Assistant Chief position in his division in early March 2022. Hung repeatedly consulted with senior deputy prosecuting attorney Ben Santos about how to craft the role and Santos’ interest in such a position. The investigation report and text records show Hung later referred to Santos as assistant chief during the months-long hiring process while talking to Manion and Satterberg about promoting Santos.
Santos took over the new Assistant Chief position in July 2022 and now earns $185,737 a year, according to the office’s records staff. Other assistant chief positions in the office pay about $180,000 to $230,000 a year. Santos previously made about $162,000 a year as a senior deputy prosecuting attorney.
Texts messages show the conversation between Hung and Santos about the new position began at least two months before the job was posted publicly. At the time, Santos was a prosecutor in the Criminal Division and had been with the office since 2004. According to a member profile on the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission website, the majority of his trial work involved the prosecution of domestic violence and sex crimes.
In that early March 2022 text exchange, Hung mentioned trying to poach lawyers from other divisions within the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for a new assistant chief position in the Juvenile Division. The conversation ended with Santos mentioning to Hung that “Maybe you can carve something cool out for me. Also on the down low …”
Text messages obtained in the records request and the investigation report show the conversation continued between the two men as Hung approached Manion in mid-March 2022 about creating the new assistant chief position and appointing Santos to that job.
A change in course
After a meeting between Manion, Satterberg, Hung and Santos, Santos was left to believe he was appointed to the new position, according to the investigation report. But Satterberg quickly changed his mind and ultimately decided to post the job publicly.
In a March 24, 2022 email to office leadership, Satterberg referenced the desire for fairness and consistency on hiring as he announced his reversal on appointing Santos. The investigation report indicated Satterberg’s decision came after both the chief of the Criminal Division and the director of Human Resources voiced concerns.
“We have pledged to be more transparent with the members of this office when such opportunities arise, and to allow all who may be interested in the position a chance to think about it and apply,” Satterberg wrote in the email. “To do otherwise here would be an unforced error with rippling negative morale consequences that I want to avoid.”
Crosscut reviewed text and email messages that state the proposed hire also undercut morale in what staff described as a short-staffed Criminal Division still facing a backlog of pending cases due to delays during the pandemic. Some staff told Crosscut they felt the investigating attorney did not speak with key staff members or examine the broader impact of the hire.
One deputy prosecuting attorney, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told Crosscut they believe the hiring involved backroom dealing despite prior promises from Satterberg and Manion for more transparency.
In the past, assistant chief positions have been both appointed and selected after an open and competitive process, lawyers in the office told the investigator and Crosscut in interviews. The investigation noted that Satterberg did have the authority to hire or appoint chief and assistant chief positions and forgo a public process. These positions are not covered by any collective bargaining agreement.
“All I knew is that chiefs and assistant chiefs get appointed,” Hung said in an interview with Crosscut.
If someone as experienced as Santos wanted to join his team, Hung said, he was going to explore a way to make that happen. He added that many of his text messages lacked context and were part of a larger set of communications between parties, including in-person conversations.
“The office has historically promoted and appointed white men and white people,” he added, “but when it’s a person of color it becomes a story to be investigated.”
After Satterberg decided to have a competitive process for the position, Hung wrote up a list of qualifications that Satterberg included in the job posting, according to the investigation report. Some in the office indicated few employees could meet the requirements. Hung’s division operations manager later texted to Santos: “There are some pretty serious qualifications on the posting. I cannot think of more than one or two people who meet them.”
The heads of the Criminal Division, who supervised Santos at the time, noted in a text exchange that they didn’t have the qualifications listed in the job announcement, pointing to not having enough experience in the sexual assault unit.
Pushback on job posting
After the job was posted in early May 2022, a number of emails came into Satterberg, Manion and the Human Resources department from staff dismayed about the new position, questioning the qualifications laid out in the description and the need for a new high-level position for the Juvenile Division that would take much-needed experience and resources away from the Criminal Division.
According to May 2022 King County Superior Court caseload reports, the same month the job was posted, filings for the criminal division averaged 404 cases per month that year, all while the division faces a backlog of cases that piled up during the pandemic. Whereas filings for the Juvenile division “remain at a low level,” roughly 34 cases per month in 2022.
One email from a senior prosecuting attorney raised the idea that it was common knowledge how the position originated: “It is well known that the Juvenile Assistant Chief position was created by Jimmy [Hung] for Ben Santos. They have both said as much.”
In an interview with Crosscut, Santos said the process was not rigged, but “after Satterberg changed course, that opened it for criticism. It was going to be really hard to show that going forward it’s an open and competitive process.”
Santos said that the text he sent to Hung about keeping the job “on the down low” wasn’t about keeping the position a secret, but he didn’t want lawyers in the Criminal Division to know that he was thinking about leaving his current job. Santos added that conversations about the position between the men outside of text messages focused on brainstorming a position that would fill the needs of the Juvenile Division.
Manion, who served as Satterberg’s chief of staff and participated in discussions during the crafting of the Assistant Chief position, wrote in an email she supported Satterberg’s reversal in favor of an open process. She said she is also honoring other requests from the union, pointing to the process used with several recent chief positions that were decided through an interview panel that included members of the union.
The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Association declined to comment for this story. In its November letter, the Union asked Manion’s office to create a policy against tailoring job qualifications for an individual and requiring an “open and transparent process” for hiring positions at or above assistant chief level.
The office did not point to any policy changes made in response to the union’s request.
When asked what she did to ensure that the hiring of the assistant chief position in the Juvenile Division would be an open and competitive process after Satterberg reversed course, Manion referred to several pages in the report. Those pages outlined what the investigator found to have occurred during the hiring process, but did not specifically identify any steps Manion or anyone in the office had taken to ensure it would be an open and competitive process going forward.
The investigation report stated just two people eventually applied for the job — Santos and a second internal applicant. The other applicant withdrew her name before interviews were conducted. In a letter explaining her decision, she said her experience didn’t match what was required for the position.
After that, the director of Human Resources told the leader of the Criminal Division in a text message that during a meeting with Satterberg and Manion, “I’m going to ask them to pull the plug on this whole charade.”
Calls for consistency
A number of attorneys in the office declined to speak with Crosscut on the record about the situation. Some in the office said they felt the investigation by Advance Law Office was inadequate, cherry-picking text messages and interviewees.
“It just accepted the office’s version at face value; the investigation was a way to win in the court of public opinion and public records,” said a deputy prosecuting attorney who asked to remain anonymous.
They said the report failed to interview anyone from the Criminal Division who had complained about the creation of the position and hiring process, or include text messages in which Santos allegedly asked for the new position to be carved out for him.
As part of the previous nepotism complaint settlement in 2021, Satterberg acknowledged his office had broken ethics rules when employees failed to document the steps they took to recuse themselves from hiring decisions to ensure no preferential treatment was given. He also wrote a new anti-nepotism policy and agreed to conduct office-wide training on the new hiring practices.
The new Advance Law Office investigation report found Satterberg had struggled to establish a consistent standard for hiring leadership positions.
“In hindsight, I should have put the brakes on and had a process. Then other people came in and wanted a process,” the report quotes Satterberg. “That was a process fumble on my part, but I have the right to appoint people regardless.”
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