King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg’s office cut deal to head off ethics probe into nepotism claims

Early last year, a whistleblower alleged the adult children of two high-ranking officials in King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg’s office appeared to have unfairly received internships, jobs or other special treatment that broke county ethics rules.

The nepotism complaint, filed in January 2020, spurred the county’s ombudsman to hire an outside attorney to investigate whether the son and daughter-in-law of Mark Larson, longtime chief of Satterberg’s criminal division, and the stepson of his human resources director, Heidi Parkington-Thal, had improperly benefited.

Satterberg’s office denied the claims. But after a monthslong investigation turned up nearly 1,500 pages of records, the office asked the ombuds to halt the probe and negotiate a settlement. In August, a never-before-used compromise called an “early resolution agreement” was brought before the county’s Board of Ethics for required approval.

Under the deal, Satterberg’s office acknowledged it had violated some ethics rules, mostly for failing to document measures his officials claimed they’d taken to ensure no preferential treatment was given. The office also drafted a new anti-nepotism policy and agreed to undertake officewide training. No employees faced discipline.

But what wasn’t shared with the ethics board before it approved the agreement were records uncovered by the investigation before it was stopped. The investigator’s summary of those records, obtained by The Seattle Times through a public records request, indicates favoritism in personnel matters, or the appearance of it, was more serious than what Satterberg’s office had acknowledged.

The summary showed Satterberg’s office had awarded coveted paid internships in 2018 to his HR director’s stepson, even though multiple other candidates had been recommended before him, and to an initially rejected applicant — the son of a former prominent employee — after a federal judge asked Satterberg to reconsider his candidacy.

It also revealed both Larson’s son and Parkington-Thal’s stepson had run-ins with the law while assigned to prosecute criminal cases, but neither appeared to face any serious professional consequences. In fact, the office moved the HR director’s stepson into a specially created civil-division internship following his 2018 DUI arrest, then later made a decision not to prosecute him, the records show.

When recently provided a copy of the five-page summary, two ethics board members confirmed they had not seen it before the board approved the agreement. One member called its omission from the panel “troubling.” Another said the agreement with Satterberg’s office “let him off easy.”

In an interview, Ombuds Amy Calderwood said the agreement properly addressed the complaint and met the public’s interests, noting the investigation by then had cost taxpayers $102,000.

She added some of what turned up in the records fell outside the ethics code’s five-year statute of limitations or involved officials, including Satterberg, who weren’t named subjects of the complaint. The ethics board also didn’t ask to see the summary document and when presenting the agreement, her office followed code, she said.

“The language (in the code) isn’t that they get to see everything,” Calderwood said.

Satterberg separately disputed favoritism in his office, saying the interns and employees mentioned in the complaint were hired and advanced based on merit. He added he assumed the board was “given everything” before approving the settlement.

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