Renton Police are conducting a criminal investigation into King County Sheriff John Urquhart over a former deputy’s accusation that the sheriff sexually assaulted him in 2014.
Renton Commander Dave Leibman confirmed the department is conducting the investigation and will hand their findings over to county prosecutors in the coming days.
The Renton PD investigation began in September when the King County Sheriff’s Office referred the case to them. KING 5 has learned the man making the allegation is a former deputy who worked for the sheriff's office for nine years and is now a police officer out of state.
Former deputy Brian Barnes accuses Urquhart of groping him outside a Renton restaurant three years ago after the two had dinner together.
The sheriff insists Barnes is a disgruntled employee with an ax to grind and that the accusation is politically motivated. A November 1 statement from the King County Sheriff's Office said that Urquhart would file a defamation lawsuit against Barnes by the end of the day,
KING 5 has interviewed the accuser several times in the past, and he agreed to allow us to identify him for this story.
During Barnes’s time as a King County deputy, residents and even Sheriff Urquhart praised Barnes for his strong connections with the community. He received 15 commendations for his work while with the department.
But now, the 49-year-old officer, who campaigned for Urquhart in the last election, claims he was the victim of sexual misconduct from an incident that happened in March 2014 outside the Yankee Grill in Renton.
Urquhart explained why the two of them met for dinner that night.
"To warn him there was going to be an allegation made against him," said Urquhart, who declined to say what the allegation was. "I didn't want him to resign from his storefront position because he did a good job as a storefront deputy. And I needed him there."
After the two left the restaurant, Barnes claims they were talking in the parking lot when Urquhart tried to grope him.
"He put one hand on my shoulder, and he put another hand on my crotch," he said. The deputy says he immediately pulled away.
The sheriff calls it a "despicable lie" meant to derail his bid for reelection, implying Barnes’s accusations are a well-timed political hit job.
"Any allegation that something happened is just ridiculous. It's just ridiculous. Period," said the sheriff. "That's the only way I describe it. And any allegation that is made is purely political."
A year later the deputy resigned from the department.
In May of this year, the accuser said he finally reported the incident in an email to the U.S. Department of Justice.
"I pushed him away but was stunned by his actions," he wrote in the email.
Devin O’Malley, a spokesperson for the DOJ, declined to comment or confirm the email was received by the department.
When Barnes didn't hear back from the DOJ, he contacted the King County Sheriff's Office Internal Investigations Unit last month. The IIU referred the case to Renton Police, since the alleged incident occurred in their jurisdiction.
The sheriff said he went in for questioning in October. Asked if he took a polygraph, he replied, "No, of course not.”
The sheriff has subsequently provided KING 5 with documentation that he obtained an independent polygraph on October 23 with a certified polygraphist, Norman Matzke. Matzke declined to comment about the polygraph, but the document indicated Urquhart denied any sexual contact with Barnes and "no deception indicated."
Urquhart gave KING 5 a binder of information about Barnes’s record with the department -- information he also shared with Renton detectives and The Seattle Times. The hundreds of pages of material, Urquhart says, serve as evidence the former deputy is a contentious employee, with a long list of mostly unfounded complaints made against his supervisors and the department's top brass.
To help refute the deputy's allegation, Urquhart's chief of staff provided a text message Barnes sent about the sheriff after their meeting in March 2014, the night of the alleged assault.
"He is a good man," Barnes wrote in the text to Chief of Staff Chris Barringer. "I told you I would never bad mouth someone I believe in."
This is the second time a former deputy has accused Urquhart of sexual assault. The first allegation came from a female deputy who said he raped her in 2002 when he was her supervising sergeant, a claim largely discredited by federal and local investigators.
The King County Ombudsman's Office issued a report earlier this year saying Urquhart violated procedures when he told his department’s Internal Investigations Unit not to investigate or document the rape accusation.
"The mishandling of sexual assault charges against Sheriff Urquhart is appalling and unacceptable," said Alexis Turla, of the National Women's Political Caucus of WA.
The organization was among three women's rights groups who came out publicly against the sheriff on Wednesday.
Monisha Harrell, board president of Equal Rights Washington, was outraged when Urquhart's staff tried to discredit his accusers.
"It is absolutely victim blaming. We have to get past the point where we expect people to be perfect," Harrell said.
Whether Barnes’s allegations of assault are true, there were signs that the relationship between Barnes and the sheriff began to sour shortly after the March dinner meeting in Renton.
Four months after the alleged incident, in a July 2014 interview, Urquhart told KING 5 the deputy was stepping down from his Skyway position because his work hours changed.
"He was on a 4-10 shift which is problematic sometimes more expensive, but the big reason he was changed was because of all the problems that we are having up here," Urquhart told KING 5.
But at that time, the deputy hinted to KING 5 that he had other reasons.
"It wasn't done for a budgetary reason there is an internal conflict in the sheriff's office," Barnes said in an interview on the same day.
A year later, facing termination for insubordination, conduct unbecoming an officer, and making false reports, Barnes resigned.
Urquhart says he wanted to get rid of a "narcissistic and litigious" employee and offered him more than $100,000 to leave.
Asked why he offered a settlement to a deputy who was facing termination, especially with more than $100,000, Urquhart said: "That is how government works. We didn't have a particularly strong case, we were told. We were in mediation, and we didn't have a particularly strong case. So King County, not the sheriff's office, King County negotiated with him to get him to resign. And I concurred with that because I thought it was a good decision."
The deputy says he accepted the settlement fearing he could lose his house and his reputation. Both sides say the sexual allegation never came up in the negotiations for his departure.
Asked why he waited more than three years to come forward with the allegation, Barnes replied in a written statement: "As a cop, I always wondered why people waited to report Sex crimes. I learned through experience how hard it is internally to believe someone would violate someone and not care. The public paid me to leave so John could continue to be sheriff and an agreement for me to be silent."
"This particular case is nothing more than political stunt coordinated with my opponent. That's exactly what this is. Nothing more than that," Urquhart said.
Urquhart's opponent for sheriff, Major Mitzi Johanknecht, denies having anything to do with the allegation.
“This is why victims of sexual violence fear coming forward,” she said in a written statement. “They fear not being believed. They fear being called liars and being ridiculed.”
"Sexual violence cannot and should not be politicized, and my campaign has done nothing of the kind," she said.
Urquhart noted to the timing of the September allegation came right after the county notified the former deputy it overpaid him in that settlement by $26,000. An amount the accuser now is required to repay.
The sheriff also points out that his accusation came on the same day Seattle Mayor Ed Murray resigned from office.
The deputy said neither were factors in his decision to step forward. He insists he was notified of the county's overpayment back in February, and now that he lives on the east coast, he pays little attention to politics in Seattle.
Follow Elisa Hahn on Twitter @ElisaHahnK5