Enumclaw local Allan Thomas has resigned his seat as commissioner of Drainage District 5 amid investigations into skirting election laws and stealing hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.
Drainage District 5 is a special purpose taxing district created in 1895 and charged with maintaining drainage ditches alongside Enumclaw roads in the city’s northeast areas. Roughly 600 residents live in the district, and between 2015 and 2018, were taxed a rough average of $130 per household every year to fund the district’s $75,000 to $80,000 budget for that maintenance.
But according to an Enumclaw Police Department investigation, which lasted from November 2017 to January 2019, little to no work on those ditches was done between 2012 and 2017, despite the fact that invoices to the King County Treasurer showed Drainage District 5 was contracting with A. Conservation Services every year.
The investigation revealed A. Conservation Services was only in operation between 2010 and 2013 and was run by Allan Thomas’ son, Alex Thomas. Alex Thomas told police he worked two jobs for the drainage district in 2012, but didn’t do any work after.
The money Alex Thomas was paid with went into a joint credit union account with his mother, JoAnn Thomas.
Long after A. Conservation Services was supposedly not in operation, money continued to be deposited into the account, totaling up to more than $400,000 by 2017. Throughout that time, withdrawals were being made with JoAnn Thomas’ signature to the amount of more than $156,000.
It appears some money did go toward drainage ditch maintenance — according to the investigation, the Renton-based business City-Biz was paid $24,000 in October 2018 to do ditch work, and officers were provided evidence of work being completed.
But it also seems the money was spent on Thomas’ farm (Thomas Farm). BrandX, based in Buckley, was paid about $58,000 in early 2018 for hay for the cows, the report reads.
In addition to the police investigation, which was forwarded to the King County Prosecuting Attorney January 2019, two other investigations have been opened: the Washington State Auditor will take their own look at Thomas’ financials, as well as perform an accountability audit, and the FBI has opened an investigation after King County Reagan Dunn — who represents the residents of Drainage District 5 — requested their involvement earlier in May.
Dunn has also taken up providing some legislative fixes so King County has more oversight on special purpose tax district and was planning to ask the full council to declare the commissioner seats in Drainage District 5 vacant, due to the fact there appears to be no evidence that the district notified residents of the filing period for becoming a commissioner or holding a proper election for at least a decade, if not since Thomas was elected in the late 1980s.
But before the council could take up that action, both Thomas and the second commissioner, Kennth Olson, resigned their positions. The third commissioner seat is vacant, and has been so for an undetermined period of time.
Olson resigned first, sending a letter via his attorney Cooper Offenbecher of the Seattle-based Allen, Hensen, Maybrown & Offenbecher criminal trial and appeal firm on May 14.
“He will not contest any action the King County Council takes to fill vacancies on the Drainage District No. 5 Board of Commissioners,” Offenbecher wrote.
Thomas followed suit in an email to Dunn on May 15, adding that his decision was “in the best interests” of the district.
Dunn made it clear that he expects these investigations into Thomas to continue despite the resignations.
“A resignation doesn’t, in any way, create immunity for criminal acts that may have [been] done in the performance of someone in official duties. Period,” he said in a phone interview. “If criminal action occurred, and I want to underscore ‘if’… that person can be held criminally liable.
“With respect to election law, I don’t know whether the violation of those election laws trigger criminal liability or if they just make the election of the office void,” he continued. “I don’t know what the statutes say on that, and can’t speak to it.”
It’s unclear which, if any, provisions under RCW 29A.84 — crimes and penalties associated with elections and voting — would be applicable to this situation.
MORE OVERSIGHT FOR SPECIAL TAX DISTRICTS
There are several archaic laws that govern special purpose tax districts in Washington state which would most likely not even leave the ground in a current political debate. Many of these could have allowed Thomas to allegedly not hold an election for 30 years and siphon taxpayer money into a personal bank account.
The King County Council approved a measure to tackle several of these laws on May 15.
First, concerning public money, the King County Treasurer collects and distributes the taxes collected for special districts, but has little, if any, ability to withhold that money when it comes to district expenses.
“The assumption is it’s gone through [a] strict approval processes,” King County’s executive branch Communications Manager Cameron Satterfield said in an earlier interview. “It’s the responsibility of the district commissioners or their board or their delegated staff to make sure those payments are valid.”
It also appears the King County Auditor has no authority to review special purpose tax districts, only the state auditor, which comes with its own challenges.
According to the Washington State Auditor’s Office’s Director of Communications Kathleen Cooper, Drainage District 5 filed the district’s annual report on time for many years, which resulted in the state auditor only performing an “assessment audit,” which she described as a high-level, but quick, look into the district’s financials.
“We’re what’s called ‘post-auditors’ so we look at things that have already happened. We’re not a regulatory agency — we’re a reporting agency only,” Cooper said. “We don’t actually go in and look at every single penny that was spent.”
Things start to get really strange when it comes to election laws.
Under state law, special purpose tax districts with more than 500 residents can run their own elections independent of their county’s election department, though an agreement must be struck up between the two.
Additionally, only land-owners in special purpose tax districts are able to vote. This means Chinook Apartments residents, who live in Drainage District 5, are unable to vote, unless they own land in the tax district.
Finally, if only one person files for a special purpose tax district commissioner seat, no elections are held — that person is automatically a commissioner.
The new county rules direct the King County Executive Office to perform a compliance review of elections, finance processes and procedures for each special district. This includes finding out when the last election was held and if there are any vacancies. It will additionally include how much tax or fee revenue was collected by each district in the past five years along with loan information and audit records.
There are more than 100 special purpose tax districts in King County, but these new rules will only affect the seven districts that hold their own elections, rather than be a part of King County Elections and be on the regular voter ballot.
While this new measure does not give the county authority over these special districts, it can provide information to increase transparency.
For example, the cost for special elections — which do not appear on the regular county ballots — are generally funded by taxpayers in those districts. County staff said the average cost of an election for a drainage district for between 500 and 1,000 property owners is around $4,000.
King County Elections Director Julie Wise has also said she wants to update legislation concerning special purpose tax district elections laws.