An Enumclaw elected official is under investigation for allegedly stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money.
Allan Thomas, owner of Thomas Farm off state Route 410, is one of two commissioners for King County Drainage District 5, a special taxing district that was formed in 1895. Drainage District 5 is responsible for maintaining roughly 18 miles of drainage ditches to control flooding on Enumclaw’s east side, draining water into the Newakum Creek and Green River.
Thomas has served as commissioner since 1988, partly thanks to an obscure Washington State law that not only allows drainage districts to run their own elections independently from their respective counties, but not even hold elections at all if only one person files for the position during an election year.
It’s estimated roughly 600 property owners live in Drainage District 5, but the boundaries are complicated — rough lines can be drawn east of state Route 169/Porter Street and north of 410.
A public disclosure request revealed Drainage District 5 residents have been taxed between $75,000 and $80,000 between 2015 and 2018. This is an average of $127 per household every year, though amounts vary depending on the size of the property.
That tax revenue is supposed to go toward maintaining ditches along Enumclaw roadsides, and since 2010, Drainage District 5 has been paying A. Conservation Services (AC Services) for that work.
Alex said in an official interview with Zilbauer in November 2017 that he did two jobs when the company first started, but “did not do any further work nor did he have anything more to do with AC Services” after that, the report reads.
But money continued to roll into AC Services’ credit union account, which was held in the name of both Alex and Thomas’ wife, JoAnn Thomas, long after the company apparently closed.
According to police documents, AC Services was paid more than $400,000 between 2012 and 2017, with some years butting up against Drainage District 5’s total budget for that year.
According to Zilbauer, Alex said he “knew nothing about the activity in the account for the last few years” in another interview in March 2018, adding that JoAnn also had access to the account.
By May 2018, Zilbauer received withdrawal information from the account, all made with JoAnn’s signature. Between 2012 and 2018, roughly $74,000 was withdrawn from the account. By this time, it appears the account was in JoAnn and her husband’s names.
Some tax revenue does seem to have gone to other businesses, but not always for Drainage District 5 purposes.
Jensen Sand and Gravel was paid around $2,100 for five orders; the owners said two of those orders were personally picked up by Thomas, which was “very unusual,” as Jensen Sand and Gravel has done business with other drainage districts, who all requested delivery.
Another company, BrandX in Buckley, was paid around $58,000. In early 2018, the owner told Zilbauer he sells hay to Thomas for the dairy cows on their farm, Thomas Farm. However, he added he’s had trouble collecting payment from Thomas, and at that time, was owed around $35,000.
He said he continued to do business with the couple because “he felt bad when [JoAnn] called crying about financial problems they were having” and “he knows he will eventually get his money,” the police report read.
Another $24,000 appears to have gone to Renton-based City Biz, and the owner showed Zilbauer some photos of the work he did in Enumclaw drainage ditches in October 2018.
The Enumclaw Police Department sent the case to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office in January 2019, and the department confirmed it is considering charges pending further investigation.
Additionally, the Washington State Auditor has opened its own investigation into Thomas for a potential loss of public funds since the office was contacted by the city of Enumclaw in 2017, a spokeswoman said.
The Courier-Herald contacted JoAnn, who referred reporters to their lawyer, Alicia Cullen of the Seattle-based Calfo, Eakes & Ostrovsky firm.
Cullen could not be reached for comment by deadline.
A LACK OF ELECTIONS, OVERSIGHT
It’s unclear where the ball was dropped when it comes to overseeing Thomas’ alleged actions.
Part of the problem might be that very few people appear to be aware Drainage District 5 even exists, an issue that is only exacerbated by an apparent lack of elections.
According to King County Election’s Chief of Staff Kendall Hodson, state law was set so that drainage districts with more than 500 voters can run their own elections. Hodson said Drainage District 5 has never coordinated with the county for its elections.
On top of that, state law says, “no election shall be held to elect a member of a special district governing body… if no one or only one person files for the position.”
Because of this, Hodson and King County Elections couldn’t say how many elections Drainage District 5 has had. The last election, according to a King 5 news report, was in 1988, when Thomas was elected to his position.
It appears Thomas has given notices in The Courier-Herald about Drainage District 5 elections, though it’s also unclear how many.
The Courier-Herald’s records show two legals were posted in its classified section advertising an election — one in 2010, and another in 2012. Electronic records concerning legals before 2010 were not available by deadline.
“Notice is hearby given that Drain District 5-5A is seeking candidates to service on the Board of Commissioners. If you reside within the Drain District 5-5A you are eligible to apply,” the notice reads, asking for applicants to mail their answer to Thomas Farm.
However, Washington law states special districts should have an election every even-numbered year, and no notices after 2012 were found.
Drainage District 5 documents show the “Daily Journal” (maybe referring to the Daily Journal of Commerce, in which King County helps publish election notices for Drainage Districts 1 and 2) could be another publication that was used to notice elections, though this information was unavailable before deadline.
King County’s Treasury department is also involved in managing Drainage District 5.
While drainage districts can set their own budgets, they can’t collect that tax money itself, said Cameron Satterfield, King County’s executive branch communications manager.
“We act as the treasurer for literally dozens of these special districts in King County. King County collects the property taxes on behalf of those districts, deposits them into their designated account in our financial system, and then we issue what are called warrants (checks) to pay for proved valid expenses of the district,” Satterfield said, adding that in order to receive money for expenses, these districts must provide the county with a payment authorization form signed by at least two commissioners.
Drainage District 5 has two commissioners — Thomas and Kenneth Olson. The district has a third seat that is vacant, and it is unclear how long the seat has gone unfilled, though Satterfield said it’s been “quite a while.”
So long as the Treasury’s processes were followed, he continued, King County has little authority to stop issuing checks to Drainage District 5 so long as its commissioners remain in their seats.
“As long as it’s been an approved expense by the district — and we don’t really have visibility into any individual district’s approval processes — as long as it’s the duly appointed, authorized folks that we get the invoice and payment voucher from, and it’s got the correct signatures and names on it, the assumption is it’s gone through strict approval process,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of the district commissioners or their board or their delegated staff to make sure those payments are valid.”
On the state level, the Washington State Auditor’s Office has been performing audits of Drainage District 5 for years, and in the King 5 report, Thomas told reporters his 2016 audit showed he had a clean bill of health.
But the Auditor’s Director of Communications Kathleen Cooper said that’s not quite how audits work.
“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.”
For the past several years, Thomas has been filing his annual report on time, which means the Auditor’s Office has been performing “assessment audits,” what Cooper described as a high-level, but quick, look into the district’s financials.
But in this last round of audits (government agencies should expect one at least every three years), Thomas did not submit his annual reports by deadline, so “we are not doing an assessment audit this time,” Cooper said. “We are doing what’s called an accountability audit, which is a much more extensive type of review.”