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Black Diamond: Investigations, firings, resignations | Everything you need to know
Black Diamond's ex-city attorney, Loren Combs, is currently under investigation for multiple alleged finance-related infractions. As the investigation unfolds, other revelations regarding City Hall employees and ex-employees have surfaced. The story involves a considerable number of people, agencies and other details. To avoid confusion, the Covington Reporter is maintaining this page, which will offer a bird's eye view of the case and serve as a gateway to more detailed information.
Black Diamond's ex-city attorney Loren Combs has been accused by "current and former [Black Diamond] officials" of multiple infractions, including "significant over billing, double billing and possible fraud," as stated in a letter from state Rep. Chris Hurst (D-Greenwater) to state Auditor Brian Sonntag. The accusations appear to stem from a complaint by YarrowBay, a company under contract by the city of Black Diamond to build two developments in the area.
Part of the contract was that YarrowBay would pay for core city staff, city code consultants, related support facilities, equipment expenses and legal costs. YarrowBay, in a letter from their legal team, alleged that they had been overbilled for some of those services by Combs' law firm, VSI Law Group, which is also contracted by the city. YarrowBay also alleged that they had been charged for "billings that relate to other development projects."
Since the letter was sent, Combs has become the subject of multiple investigations by the state auditor’s office, the state attorney's general office and the King County prosecutor’s office. He was no longer city attorney as of Nov. 21, but the exact nature of his departure has yet to come out.
Additionally, problems within Black Diamond City Hall have surfaced because of the ongoing saga:
- The day before Combs resigned, City Administrator Leonard Smith was placed on administrative leave, pending a city investigation into his background. That background check revealed multiple "Peeping Tom" allegations in Smith's former job as Tumwater's city administrator. Smith was given the opportunity to respond to those allegations in a Loudermill hearing, but he failed to show up for that hearing and was fired.
- Gwendolyn Voelpel, the city administrator to whom the initial complaint letter was addressed, was terminated without cause Sept. 25. The firing came because she had started looking for another job.
- May 29: YarrowBay's law firm, Brynes & Keller, sends a letter to the city of Black Diamond (addressed to then-City Administrator Gwendolyn Voelpel) accusing Loren Combs' law firm, VSI Law Group, of overbilling YarrowBay and billing them for services they weren't obligated to pay for. The letter requested a refund or credit for YarrowBay and asked for an investigation into VSI's billing practices.
- June 8: Black Diamond Mayor Howard Botts responds to the YarrowBay letter by attempting to clarify what they were being billed for. He asks that the city and YarrowBay handle billing disputes directly and not through legal representatives and declines an investigation into VSI.
- July 8: Byrnes & Keller respond to the city's June 8 letter by suggesting that a mediator be brought in to resolve the issue. City Council member Rebecca Olness (now mayor-elect) claims the city was "going down that road" when the letter was received and that there were meetings going on with YarrowBay, "but the City Council was not getting all the information."
- Aug 14: Mayor Botts, in a letter to YarrowBay managing partner Brian Ross, says mediation is the way to go, but that the city will retain Loren Combs and VSI as its legal council.
- Sept. 3: Ross responds to Botts' letter by outlining seven issues that the city and YarrowBay would have to have mediated. Ross said $575,324.99 in unauthorized "one-time costs" had been levied upon YarrowBay.
- Sept. 25: City Administrator Gwendolyn Voelpel is fired because she had started looking for another job.
- Oct. 1: Leonard Smith is hired to replace Voelpel as city administrator, pending a background check.
- Nov. 20: Leonard Smith is placed on paid administrative leave when his background check reveals multiple "Peeping Tom" allegations in his past as the Tumwater city administrator. Smith is offered the opportunity of a Loudermill hearing where he can present his side of the story. The hearing is scheduled for Dec. 8.
- Week of Nov. 21: Loren Combs departs as city attorney. Whether he resigned or was fired remains unclear. Yvonne Ward is appointed interim city attorney through Dec. 31 and is tasked with assisting the city in finding a permanent replacement. Combs attends a city council executive session Nov. 21, is asked to leave and walks out with two police officers. The details of that encounter are also unclear.
- Dec. 8: Leonard Smith's employment is terminated by Mayor Botts after Smith fails to appear at the scheduled Loudermill hearing.
- Jan. 21, 2010: Leonard Smith files a claim against the city seeking severance in lieu of his termination.
- Jan. 27, 2010: The state auditor's office sends a letter to Rep. Chris Hurst, saying they found "no issues with the [city's] billings" sent to YarrowBay.