WALLA WALLA — Opponents of Sheriff John Turner’s re-election campaign don’t take much issue with his full-time law enforcement coverage, the K-9 program or involvement in the anti-gang initiative.
They do take issue with how these matters are managed and claims of how effective they are.
The campaigns of the challengers, deputy Sgts. Barry Blackman and Tom Cooper, focus primarily on what they claim to be lies, half-truths, retaliation, lack of integrity and character, mismanagement and low deputy morale for which they say Turner is responsible.
In fact, to drill it in, Cooper’s campaign slogan has been “A Sheriff You Can Trust.”
And Blackman — an initial supporter and chief operations deputy under Turner until Turner demoted him last year — maintains the sheriff’s account of how that demotion occurred is full of lies and “creative paraphrasing.”
Turner calls such claims assaults on his character and suggests his critics’ own moral failings should be investigated.
“I have the highest level of integrity and character,” he said in an interview with the Union-Bulletin.
But he has been plagued with allegations of untruthfulness since the last election campaign four years ago when an Ash Hollow Winery board member claimed Turner was making false or misleading statements regarding financial dealings with the winery when Turner was managing partner.
Turner’s re-election website addresses the Ash Hollow matter — saying it has long been settled — and other “rumors” in a section titled “News & Issues,” added in mid-May.
“Those were a campaign decision and strategy to respond to things that were being put in public,” he said in an interview.
Turner says his opponents are attacking him with “innuendo, rumor, rhetoric and speculation” because they cannot match his education, experience and accomplishments.
Turner’s supporters call it “mudslinging.”
But Blackman and Cooper say Turner’s camp started it by posting false statements on Turner’s website and they’re responding properly.
The following is a look at the claims and reactions.
Turner’s relationships with some Walla Walla County commissioners, who approve budgets for county departments, have been termed “contentious.”
Through negotiations, commissioners have allocated a total of about $1.1 million more to the Sheriff’s Office during Turner’s tenure than to the previous administration, according to Commissioner Greg Tompkins.
A member of Cooper’s campaign committee, Tompkins has said Turner’s handling of requests for money is like a “shell game,” with strong-arming of commissioners in the guise of deputy safety. Turner’s budget is replete with exorbitant spending and funds being moved around into various line items, Tompkins says.
Cooper claims Turner misrepresents and misuses his funds.
And Blackman — who terms Turner’s budgeting as “smoke and mirrors” — believes, for instance, the types of guns, scopes and uniforms Turner bought are unnecessary and too pricey.
Turner defends his levels of spending by pointing out his budget increases, in terms of percentages, have been in line with other county departments and that equipment purchases in his department have long been overdue.
“I don’t apologize for having good equipment so that (deputies) can go and do public safety,” he said in an interview.
Turner claims he’s never spent more money than his budget allows.
That’s true in that he’s had enough total money allocated to him each year to address expenditures.
But a public hiccup occurred in 2012 at a county commissioners’ meeting after it was discovered the sheriff’s current-expense budget the previous year was overspent about $19,200, largely because of medical expenses related to County Jail inmates.
Turner had enough money to cover the expenses in his portion of a separate fund. That fund is the Law and Justice account derived from a sales-tax distribution.
“Those bills were meant to be paid out of Law and Justice from the very beginning,” he told the U-B.
“So is it easy to stack it in the current expense and push me over?” he later added. “Sure. That’s what happened, but we know that that doesn’t paint an accurate portrayal of what occurred.”
But Turner’s office didn’t initially charge the bills to the Law and Justice fund, according to county Auditor Karen Martin.
“If somebody stacked and put it (in current expense), his office did it,” Martin told the U-B.
“If we had just left it alone, he would have been over budget. It took a lot of extra work to find a way to correct it,” she said.
To which Turner replied, “If, by some chance, either someone at the Auditor’s Office or my office entered too many bills in current expense forcing it to go over, a simple phone call could have remedied it.”
Tompkins characterized Turner as being very difficult to work with, telling the Union-Bulletin that whenever he questions Turner, “I can never get an honest answer.”
Tompkins — who is not seeking re-election — worries that if Turner continues in office, other elected officials will start resigning in exasperation.
“I don’t think anybody enjoys working with the guy,” he said in a later interview.
The outspoken criticism riles former Superior Court Judge Donald W. Schacht, Turner’s co-chairperson.
Schacht maintains that a sitting county elected official — such as Tompkins — who has a say in establishing Turner’s budget should not be supporting a challenger in his election.
“It bothers me a lot,” Schacht told the U-B.
Schacht said he believes it’s a conflict of interest on Tompkins’ part.
Turner lists one of his main accomplishments as helping establish the Walla Walla Valley Strategic Gang initiative to address criminal gang activity and partner for prevention and intervention efforts.
He said at a recent community forum that Walla Walla is starting to see some of the gang problems experienced by Yakima and told the Union-Bulletin he’d rather get in front of the problem before it grows out of control.
When the U-B pointed out that the Walla Walla area has been plagued with serious gang violence for more than two decades and various entities have tried to curb it, Turner said he was referring to the gang-related murder of Yesica Olivos outside city limits last winter.
Although primary defendants have yet to go to trial, Turner cites their arrests as an example of quick investigative work that “quite honestly didn’t happen in the past.”
Turner later said he was referring to work done on a 2010 murder in Burbank before he took office. In that case, the suspects reportedly fled to California and have not been apprehended.
Lucy Poirier is a former corrections sergeant at the County Jail whom Turner fired on June 14, 2012, allegedly for misconduct.
She filed a tort claim against the county the following year for what she maintained was ongoing discrimination and retaliation on the job stemming from several work-related injuries.
The county’s insurance carrier, the Washington Counties Risk Pool, eventually decided to settle the claim by giving Poirier $235,000 “based on numerous financial considerations, including the high costs of defending employment lawsuits” had the matter landed in court, according to a county statement.
There was no admission on the county’s part of liability or wrongdoing, nor was Turner’s finding of any misconduct by Poirier substantiated.
In a separate but related matter, an administrative law judge ruled Poirier eligible to receive unemployment benefits, finding she was not fired for acts defined by law to be “misconduct.”
Turner, on his website and in statements to the U-B, distances himself from the issue.
“I took office in 2011 and there was a settlement that was made and the claims that she made went back way prior to my administration,” he said in an interview.
But Poirier’s claim form lists June 14, 2012, as the date of the incident of which she was complaining — the day Turner fired her.
Poirier told the U-B recently the county failed to accommodate her from injuries dating back to 2007, when Jim Romine — now a member of Turner’s re-election committee — was jail captain and Mike Humphreys was sheriff.
“But I filed the claim because I was terminated (by Turner) in retaliation because of requested accommodations,” she said.
“It really had nothing to do with Mike Humphreys.”
Turner supporter, Waitsburg attorney Mike Hubbard, last month filed a complaint with the state Public Disclosure Commission against Tom Cooper and his election committee.
Hubbard alleged Cooper’s political advertising, which includes such phrases as “SheriffTom,” “Cooper Sheriff” and “A Sheriff You Can Trust,” falsely implies Cooper is the incumbent in the race, thereby violating state law.
Cooper said he currently is modifying his campaign materials after receiving a letter from the PDC requiring him to do so.
It’s unclear whether the PDC will conduct a formal investigation.
Schacht said he’d read the PDC rules and clearly believes Cooper’s materials are in violation.
Someone uninitiated would read “SheriffTom” or “A Sheriff You Can Trust” and infer “he’s the sheriff and you can trust him,” Schacht said.
“And he’s not the sheriff.”
The opposing accounts of why and how Blackman’s demotion occurred were detailed in Monday’s U-B.
Blackman’s campaign committee chairman, Max Carrera, told the newspaper Blackman would have accepted being released from his administrative post, which serves solely at the discretion of the sheriff, and not made a big issue of it had Turner not misrepresented how it occurred and lied about Blackman’s performance.
In a U-B interview, Turner said the discrepancies between his and Blackman’s accounts leading up to the demotion just come from seeing things differently, not from untruthfulness.
Eyewitness accounts often are inaccurate, he pointed out.
When the U-B asked Turner about any disappointments he might have encountered during his tenure, he said he couldn’t think of any.
But later, he said, “I’m really disappointed in how Barry has handled this. And I think, in hindsight, instead of treating the issue with kid gloves and trying to be kind to Barry and trying to let him return to the rank of sergeant with his, you know, ego and pride in check, there’s a possibility that we should have probably been just more factual and businesslike about it as opposed to trying to be nice about it.”
Opposing claims regarding Cooper’s campaign were detailed in Tuesday’s U-B.
Cooper is president of the local Commissioned Deputy Sheriff’s Association and Fraternal Order of Police.
During Turner’s tenure, the deputies association has filed two unfair labor practice claims against him and one formal grievance arbitration.
“Every single issue has been decided in the Sheriff’s Office and the county’s and my favor,” Turner said in an interview.
“Not one of the allegations that anyone has brought against me has been sustained.”
His website squarely blames Cooper for the time and expense, though Cooper maintains he’s only one vote and all actions against Turner were unanimous decisions by association members who voted.
Two of the issues reportedly were decided at an Aug. 2, 2012, association meeting. The U-B examined meeting minutes provided by Cooper that indicated 12 deputies attended and six provided proxies.
“Motion seconded and passed” was noted for each of the proposals.
“I think you are assuming that those minutes are accurate, correct?” Turner asked the U-B, indicating in an earlier interview that’s not the way he understood the events occurred.
He declined to be specific to protect confidentiality of deputies who spoke with him.
Turner says Cooper insisted on taking the employment issues to full hearings at taxpayer’s expense to defend Cooper’s personal vendetta against Turner.
“Tom Cooper’s a very strong personality and oftentimes that leads to a certain end conclusions,” Turner said.
Turner also takes Cooper to task for continuing “to claim that he is too injured to work” and choosing “to remain on his L&I work comp claim and paid sick leave as he campaigns for sheriff,” according to Turner’s website.
“Cooper has received a public paycheck and benefits, yet not worked as a full-duty peace officer for over 20 months,” the website says.
Cooper insists he’s nearly 100 percent street-worthy, but remains out on doctors’ orders.
To which Turner responded to the U-B that Cooper seems healthy enough “to be running around campaigning and doing a lot of other things.”
It came to the U-B’s attention in May that Publisher Rob Blethen and reportedly some other local residents were named on Blackman’s election website as supporters, when in fact they were not. The names were removed after Blackman was contacted, and he later explained that the errors apparently stemmed from mistaken presumption on the part of campaign website administrators.
Schacht told the U-B that Blackman should be held accountable.
But a couple of glitches arose in Turner’s website, as well.
From on or around June 14, Turner’s website has posted a link to a purported unedited audio recording of an interview that was conducted by members of the Union-Bulletin reporting staff on June 6 in the U-B conference room.
Several people in the room recorded the interview after a Turner volunteer who is employed by AMI Advertising declared it was being recorded.
Turner’s website says the recording was posted “in an effort to provide the community transparency” and claims it’s presented in its entirety.
However, the last five minutes or so are cut out, starting just before Turner references returning to the U-B at a later date — as requested by reporters — to continue the interview. He then sets out some proposed conditions, to which a U-B reporter did not agree.
When the reporter pointed out at a follow-up interview June 26 that the recording on the website was indeed edited, a different volunteer who works for AMI indicated the matter would be corrected by replacement with the full recorded interview.
As of this morning, that hadn’t been done.
On another portion of Turner’s website, it inaccurately portrays the substance of an article the U-B published on Jan. 10 regarding the Lucy Poirier matter.
The article details the settlement she received from her claims against the county for discrimination and retaliation.
Turner’s website says the U-B reported “Poirier was fired for misconduct.”
In fact, the word “misconduct” never appeared in the story or headline, and the reason for Poirier’s termination was not substantiated because the settlement was reached.
The U-B told Turner of the misinformation on his website.
As of this morning, it remained.
Turner told the U-B that claims he has been untruthful are politically motivated.
“I’m only responsible for my own conduct and what comes out of my mouth,” he said in an interview in which some examples of allegations against him were discussed.
“Everything you’ve talked about today has been without merit. You haven’t brought up any specifics of anything where I was found to be a bad guy or dishonest. It’s all just been general inferences and assumptions and people’s comments and general character assassinations.
“And, you know, if they choose to attack me in such a manner, then that speaks to their character, not mine.”
Despite claims by the two deputies running against him, Turner says morale is good in his office.
He said he’s a firm believer that happy employees will perform better and fewer personnel problems will result.
“The workplace, there’s laughter in the hallway. There is good work going on. The deputies do a really good job and I get along with them well,” he said.
He acknowledges there are “a couple” who don’t like him. But he denies any retaliation against any, including Bill White, who was a Sheriff’s Office captain and Turner’s opponent in the 2010 election.
Turner disciplined White after an investigation that began in late May 2012.
Turner maintains he gave all of his deputies an equal opportunity to succeed.
“Now some of them chose different paths which involved misconduct and that’s one of the least-favorite parts of my job is holding people accountable to the ethical standards of the office, but it is a necessary component of being the boss,” he said.
And he knows Blackman and Cooper are unhappy for various reasons and are vocal about it.
“But that does not make them correct,” Turner said.
Retired Walla Walla police Chief Chuck Fulton says Turner should be commended — not criticized — for his budgetary practices and is concerned some elected officials have expressed anger.
“(Turner) stands up to the commissioners and asks the tough questions.
“If they can’t take those tough questions, they better get out of the kitchen,” Fulton said.
U-B reporters Luke Hegdal and Andy Porter contributed to this report. Terry McConn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8319.