Investigators: Warnings of paycheck padding ignored by state ferries

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by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @SFrameK5

KING5.com

Posted on May 10, 2010 at 10:30 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 8:43 AM

Before retiring, Ken Marable was the most experienced engineer in the entire Washington State Ferry System. With 35 years on the job, he was best known for his expertise in all things technical, mechanical, and disagreeable. Marable worked below deck in the engine room, where he was a constant complainer. He was one of five whistleblowers in 2002 who accused their engine room supervisors – staff chief engineers- of padding their own paychecks through a strategy of working unnecessary, self-assigned overtime.

Marable's boss on the ferry Puyallup was Staff Chief Engineer Doug Phillips. The KING 5 Investigators have reported on Phillips before. Through public records we found he's one of the chief engineers pulling in massive amounts of overtime and even some triple time – up to $140 an hour in some cases. According to the public records we obtained, Phillips saw the top pay boost of all the staff chief engineers.  In 2008 he went from $90,000 to $190,000 - more than doubling his salary; mostly with double-time.

Some ferry riders did a double-take when they heard those numbers. One rider told us, "It sounds like a lot of money especially during this time when there's not a lot of money around.”

In 2005 Marable slapped Phillips and his boss Mark Nitchman with a lawsuit. In the suit he said that after he accused them of being part of a greedy "inner circle", that the two bosses circled the wagons and waged a campaign of "retaliation" to stop him from complaining about alleged misuse of public funds. For example, Marable testified he was allergic to a cleaning agent that Phillips insisted on using on the boat.  A doctor wrote the chemical put Marable in "respiratory distress" and he was “not to be subjected" to the chemical again.  Other products were available, but Phillips kept bringing it back to the ferry anyway. Court records show Phillips allegedly told Marable: "I have it, and I'll use it, and then you'll be gone." 

Marable said he continued to suffer from breathing problems when the chemical was used. So, he went over Phillip’s head and asked Phillips’ boss, Mark Nitchman, to do something.  That didn't work either. The product stayed on board. It was finally removed from the Puyallup when a representative from OSHA, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Agency ordered it to be removed.

The state defended their workers, telling the jurors the men didn't believe Ken Marable or anyone else could be allergic to the product which was known to be safe.  The Assistant Attorney General defending the men, Lisa Sutton, told the jurors Phillips and Nitchman were “dedicated state employees, proud to be public servants, proud to uphold the mission of the Washington State Ferries: that safety and public accountability are first.”

The jury didn't buy it. In a unanimous decision they awarded Marable $276,000 in damages.   On top of that he received a whopping award in punitive damages: $1,250,000 for Phillip's behavior and the same amount for Nitchman's role in the retaliation.  This left taxpayers on the hook for more than $2.7 million.

After the accusations of pay-padding, the paychecks ballooning with overtime, and the huge jury award involving the same group of chief engineers, the KING 5 Investigators found nothing has been done by the state.  No discipline. No investigation. Those supervisors—Phillips and Nitchman--are still employed and are two of the highest paid employees in the entire ferry system.

Ferry riders were outraged to hear neither Washington State Ferries nor the Washington State Department of Transportation looked at timesheets or conducted a series of interviews to see if any of the pay padding allegations were true.

“It’s shocking and it’s not right and it’s got to stop. We need to know what’s going on, people need to be informed so that we can make changes in this and bring the system around so that it’s working correctly so we can get the maximum benefit out of the tax dollars we spend to ride these ferries, said ferry commuter Susan Day Carlson.

Reporter Susannah Frame said, “Obviously this jury was trying to send a strong message and it doesn't sound like anyone listened to it."  Washington State Ferries Director David Moseley responded, “Well I think I have listened to it.  I think that I have said that that behavior in any form in this organization is not acceptable behavior, period. And it will not be tolerated under my watch.”

We were unable to reach Doug Phillips as he is out-of-state.  Mark Nitchman declined our requests for an interview. Their supervisor, the Director of Vessel Maintenance, Paul Brodeur, also turned down our requests for an interview. Ferry riders say that's not good enough. They are demanding answers and accountability.

“If enough people get involved and get mad, we're going to take it all the way up to the governor, as far as we need to go, people like me are sick and tired of this!" said Carlson.

Late this afternoon the spokesperson for State Ferries told KING 5 that after the Marable verdict Director David Moseley, wanted to embark on an investigation but was advised against it by the Attorney General’s Office.

Click here to read the jury verdict form in the Marable case.

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