Senator seeking answers: Fish and Wildlife enforcement splintered by internal conflict | 2015 Session

Controversy surrounding the department’s administration — including internal investigations, allegations of cronyism and a federal civil-rights lawsuit — has been circulating among Washington’s game wardens and marine officers for years. But what was once an internal affair has now boiled over into the Legislature, and the level of dysfunction is becoming undeniable.

An inquiry by Seattle-based employment attorney Amy Stephson determined the Guild’s allegations of ethical and potentially unlawful wrongdoing were ‘almost entirely false and unsupported by the facts.’ But she did determine (in highlighted area) that Deputy Chief Cenci could at times be ‘overly harsh, derogatory and profane.’

Below: Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe. Mike Cenci, Fish & Wildlife’s deputy chief of Statewide Marine Operations.


WNPA Olympia News Bureau

OLYMPIA — The Department of Fish and Wildlife’s enforcement division is a serious mess and someone needs to be held accountable, say critics inside and outside the division.

Controversy surrounding the department’s administration — including internal investigations, allegations of cronyism and a federal civil-rights lawsuit — has been circulating among Washington’s game wardens and marine officers for years. But what was once an internal affair has now boiled over into the Legislature, and the level of dysfunction is becoming undeniable.

“It just came to the point where I got home, my wife looked at me and I said, ‘I think we’re done, I can’t take this anymore,’” said Sgt. Ted Jackson, who after 19 years with the department has decided to retire early at the end of February. He says the dysfunction has reached such high levels that he has no choice but to leave and seek employment elsewhere.

And he’s not the only one.

“Here you’ve got an upstanding person like Sgt. Jackson coming up — a young guy retiring because people are afraid of retaliation,” said. Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, who chairs the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee.

“I want the best government that we can give the people, and I want these people to work in a safe environment, too, because they’re putting their lives on the line like everyone in law enforcement,” Pearson declared following a committee works session last month.

In the past three years, nine officers have either quit or retired early from DFW enforcement, a rate unparalleled in the last 20 years, according to senior officers. The division’s administration attributes this to officers growing old or being unable to “evolve” into the division’s new direction. However, six out of the seven former officers reached for this story disputed those reasons for leaving, with the seventh saying upper management would have eventually forced him out if he had stayed.

“The big picture is that you’ve got a law enforcement agency — the second biggest law-enforcement agency in the state — and it’s poorly run, dishonest, unsupervised and is out of control,” said Matthew Nixon, who retired in 2012 after a 19-year stint with DFW enforcement.

Jackson and Nixon are among former and current officers who say the department’s upper management — particularly Chief Steve Crown and Deputy Chief Mike Cenci — have alienated land-based officers while favoring marine officers in hiring and discipline. The number of dissenters varies based on whom you ask, but no matter which side of the divide you speak with, they are likely to express disdain for the other.

Sgt. Russ Mullens, a supporter of the administration who’s been with the department for 18 years, said “the people who are the loudest naysayers, they haven’t done anything, they haven’t brought in a dollar for the agency. There’s really no legacy left behind by those people other than angst.”

Although Cenci’s supporters praise him as the “hardest worker in the division” who’s had incredible success finding state funding for an agency strapped for cash, the deputy chief’s legacy outside the division is more controversial.

Cenci is a defendant in a federal civil-rights lawsuit regarding allegations of an unlawful vehicle search. A U.S. District Court judge first ruled that laws governing when Fish and Wildlife officers can make warrantless searches were too ambiguous to hold the officers accountable. In September. the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision and reinstated the case, deciding instead that the stop-and-search was a violation of the vehicle occupants’ Fourth Amendment rights.

During the 2007 incident on which the case is based, Cenci was working at a popular Columbia Basin location where commercial fishermen unload their catches. He notified then-Sgt. Dan Chadwick that members of a local commercial fishing family, the Tarabochias, had loaded up their truck with fresh salmon and they decided to inspect the vehicle for any failures to comply with fish and game policies.

The officers pulled their vehicle in front of the truck to block the road and arrested two of the Tarabochias with the charge of “avoiding a wildlife field inspection” when they refused to leave the vehicle until a sheriff was present. The search provided no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

“Those officers were working under what they believed the law was, what they’ve been doing for years,” said Chadwick, who was promoted to captain on Feb. 5. “We had the utmost constraint with a barricaded subject. Any other police department would have cracked the window and blown it full of pepper spray to get them out of there.”

Cenci said he and his officers operated under a statute they believed allowed them to stop anyone involved in commercial fishing in order to inspect the product, regardless of whether they are still on the water.

“You can check them in the boat and at the marketplace, but not in between? Well, a lot can happen with those fish in between those two distances,” Cenci said.

The lawsuit is one of many controversial circumstances that have surrounded Cenci in recent years. His appointment to his current position was a fire-starter in itself.

In July 2013, Cenci accepted a voluntary demotion from his deputy chief position to escape what he called the “drama” at headquarters, and to spend more time with his family. Officers were encouraged to apply to fill the position.

However, on his first day as the newly appointed chief, Crown split the position into two separate jobs, giving the newly created deputy chief of statewide marine operations title to Cenci who, despite having never applied, took the job because he felt he had “given up on a lot of really good people” when he left his old job the month before.

The five people who applied for the original position were not immediately notified of the change, nor that Cenci had been given the second deputy chief title. Nixon withdrew his name from consideration out of protest and left the department shortly thereafter.

When asked why he chose to not open up the position for other applicants or notify them of its creation, Crown said that the law “technically doesn’t require that.”

Fish and Wildlife Officers’ Guild received so many complaints about Cenci that they hired Seattle attorney Jim Cline near the end of 2012 to investigate some of the claims. After a series of interviews with officers and staffers, the list of allegations against Cenci, Crown’s predecessor Bruce Bjork and officers they supervised ranged everywhere from unfair hiring processes to repeated sexual harassment. Bjork retired in 2013.

But Amy Stephson, a Seattle employment attorney who the DFW enforcement administration hired to conduct an official follow-up, dismissed nearly every one of Cline’s allegations in her report.

For example, a female employee told the guild attorney that upon being hired she was warned that Cenci believes “women should stay at home and not be allowed in the workplace.” Although several witnesses repeated this, both Cenci and Bjork denied the claim. Stephson found the allegation unsubstantiated.

According to the report, another witness told Stephson that she requested a transfer to another division after two officers refused to work with her and made “derogatory sexual and racial remarks.” But because her transfer request was successful and there were no further complaints, Stephson dismissed the incident in her report.

Two accusations that have caused some of the most controversy within the department — that Cenci doesn’t treat marine and land officers equally, and that his actions with the media during a large poaching sting could have endangered officers’ lives — were categorized in Stephson’s report as “management issues not requiring my inquiry.”

The one allegation she did find to be substantiated was that Cenci, “who otherwise is an extremely dedicated and effective leader, at times can communicate his views about officers in a manner that is overly harsh, derogatory and profane. This behavior is counterproductive and offends both his targets and others.”

The administration viewed Stephson’s report as an exoneration. Officers who oppose the administration felt differently, and several others who anticipated venting their frustrations said they were never contacted, despite requesting to be.

“In my opinion it was a borderline whitewash,” said Dave Jones, the founder and former vice president of the officer’s guild who first requested the investigation. Crown fired him from his job as an officer shortly after the release of the second report for policy violations involving evidence mishandling and statements he had made, a decision that has been largely contested by guild members and other officers.

When contacted for this story, five officers decided not to go public with their concerns in order to preserve careers they believe would be jeopardized if they spoke out against the administration.

Those who support upper management laugh off these fears as disingenuous.

“No one’s going to retaliate against you, for what, telling the truth?” Mullens said. “Now if you’re lying or disparaging administration, that’s officer misconduct and you’ll be subject to discipline.”

Word of DFW enforcement’s issues reached lawmakers in late December.

Sen. Pearson arranged a work session for Jan. 14 to give one of the division’s retired detectives a chance to voice his concerns to the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee, which Pearson chairs.

Todd Vandivert, a former detective for the department’s Statewide Investigations Unit, is one of two officers to be named DFW’s Statewide Officer of the Year twice. He is widely considered by administrators to be the ringleader of the disgruntled officers, whom Cenci refers to as “Vandivert’s disciples.”

According to Vandivert, the catalyst for his 2012 retirement and subsequent anti-administration campaign came at the end of Operation Cody, a two-year-long undercover investigation that resulted in 14 raids and 38 charges of wildlife poaching.

But on the morning the raids were carried out, Cenci did interviews with both KING 5 and KIRO in which he revealed that raids would be taking place throughout the rest of the day, and that they would be targeting wildlife poachers identified through a phony game-trading website that Vandivert and his partner had set up.

Cenci said that coordinating with at least one news organization was part of their “media plan, which [they] usually do for big events.” But Jackson and other officers on the ground that day say they were never notified of the media’s involvement until news crews showed up, and that several raids had yet to be conducted at the time Cenci’s quotes went online.

“The last thing you should ever throw into the mix is something you could have had control over,” Jackson said. “Without telling people this was happening, without preparing any of us that this was going to happen, it wasn’t right. Every single officer that was at that house with me was upset.”

So was Pearson. In fact, the Operation Cody episode was the driving force behind him setting up the Senate work session last month.

“Why would you put officers’ lives at risk when you’re doing a sting by going to the press right before it?” he said in an interview after the briefing. “That concerned me the most. The behavior of the agency is disturbing.”

In the weeks leading up to the work session, a rumor circulated around the division that the meeting was organized by Pearson in an effort to take away fish and wildlife officers’ general police authority. Pearson, who in 2013 was named Legislator of the Year by the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, was outraged when word of the rumor reached his staff and called it a “bold-faced lie” at the beginning of the work session.

Crown and Cenci denied hearing the rumor before the work session. Jackson claimed he heard it directly from the chief. Pearson says he believes the rumor “came from the top.”

“When I walked in I saw a lot of unfriendly glares, I know it was because of that rumor going around,” Pearson said. “I’m not going to get into the minds of these folks, but whoever’s idea it was to spread that was extremely petty. It just shows me that we need to look this in the face and see that this department—the enforcement division—has very concerning leadership at this time.”

Division administrators and their supporters attribute most of these controversies to Vandivert himself, saying he and those who echo his concerns are waging a PR war for no reason. But officers including Jackson resent the simplification and cite it as further evidence that upper management has lost touch with a large portion of its employees.

“I don’t follow Todd Vandivert,” Jackson said. “I wouldn’t leave a career I’d hoped to retire from at a good age that has been supporting my family for 19 years because of Todd Vandivert. Todd Vandivert is not going to provide my paycheck or medical insurance to my wife and daughters.”

Fish and Wildlife Commission Chairman Bradley Smith said he’s only come across the department’s schism in passing, although he hopes to discuss the issues in the near future when the department’s new director settles into his position. The commission is a governor-appointed panel responsible for overseeing all DFW operations.

“Law enforcement, as we know from Ferguson and on and on, is a delicate occupation in today’s world,” Smith said. “There’s a certain personality type that deals with that occupation.”

Jim Unsworth, a 30-year veteran of Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game, was named DFW Director Phil Anderson’s successor on Jan. 10. His office spokesperson this past week said he was not available for an interview.

Anderson had stated in December in published remarks that the issues affecting the enforcement program are viewed by some in his department as of major concern, and others as of little concern. His conclusion was that the affect those problems have on the enforcement division falls somewhere in between.    The issue now has the attention of the Legislature and Pearson said he’s not going to let it blow over without further discussion.

“Let me say this: this is going to be an ongoing issue for me throughout the legislative session as I talk with more people,” Pearson said.