They are detectives who bring sex criminals to justice. And they handle some of the most sensitive cases within the King County Sheriff’s Office.
Now, three female deputies in the department's sex crimes unit have filed suits against their own supervisors, claiming they were subjected to years of "chronic…almost daily sexual harassment" by supervisor Tony Provenzo and his partner Paul Mahlum. The $9 million law suit alleges the department "turned a blind eye."
“It is ironic that those who were in charge of protecting people from sex crimes were the ones perpetrating such heinous abuse,” said attorney Julie Kays, who is representing the women in the action. ”It was a dirty secret.”
Kays is a former King County prosecutor who actually worked with some of those involved in this case.
“I’m personally offended,” said Kays. “The talk of the men’s sex lives, the women’s breasts, body parts…all the foul and disgusting things that were said in front of these women for years.”
But it wasn't just the sexual harassment the three deputies say they suffered that so disturbed them. They claim Provenzo and Mahlum would sink so low as to make fun of sexual assault victims themselves. The suit alleges they pretended “get off” on victims’ stories about rape and abuse.
“Victims of sexual violence should know their accounts of the horrors that happened to them will be safe and respected by the department that's investigating them,” said Kays.
What's more, Kays says Provenzo advised one deputy against aggressively investigating a rape on the Mukilshoot Indian Reservation.
“His remarks were along the lines of 'it happens all the time up there,’” said Kays.
Newly elected King County Sheriff John Urquhart calls the comments “completely unacceptable.” Urquhart has ordered two new investigations, in addition to two conducted under his predecessor. Witnesses quoted in the suit say it was a pattern of abuse that was kept quiet for up to a decade.
“What is equally unacceptable is that nobody did anything about it,” said Urquhart. “If they knew about it they should have. If they didn't know about it, they should have.”
Urquhart said his investigations will go beyond those accused in the Special Assault Unit, but he doesn’t believe sexual harassment is endemic within the department.
“This is a unit that deals with the worst of the worst on a daily basis. It’s not an excuse; it’s the way it is,” said Urquhart. “I don’t believe these attitudes are widespread . But if they are, I will find out. I promise you that.”
Both supervisors have now been reassigned from the Special Assault Unit. They face serious disciplinary action if the accusations are proven true, including possible termination.