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After 16 years of refusing state audit, Pierce County drainage district finally relents

With increased pressure from a new law, a Pierce County drainage district featured in a KING 5 investigation submitted to a required state audit.

FIFE, Wash. — A commissioner for Pierce County Drainage District No. 23 paid himself more money than allowed by state law and didn’t follow records keeping and reporting requirements, according to a new audit released last week by the Office of Washington State Auditor Pat McCarthy.

Drainage District No. 23 had refused to respond to requests to submit to a required state audit for more than 16 years and had become symbolic of the dozens of “special purpose districts” each year that refuse to respond to the auditor’s office.

Special purpose districts are governments that collect taxes or fees for a specific purpose, like a fire, sewer, water or school district. They are separate from core governments, like cities or counties, and are often run by their own elected officials.

“The District did not provide adequate controls over safeguarding of public resources,” the audit report published Aug. 17 concluded.

Pierce County Drainage District No. 23 manages a publicly funded trench system that drains stormwater in and around Fife. Three elected commissioners collect about $75,000 a year in taxes from landowners in the area.

When the state examined 101 vendor payments for nearly $60,000 in 2018, auditors found “the District could not provide adequate supporting records for 75 of these vendor payments, totaling $36,989,” the audit report says.

In reply to the audit findings, the commissioners wrote, “We have taken responsibility for correcting the unknown problems of the 2018 audit….”

McCarthy, an elected state auditor, said her auditors did not find anything of a criminal nature. They believe the commissioners were not aware of the rules or simply not following them.

“We did not [find anything criminal],” said McCarthy. “They are all things they can rectify.”

In 2019, the KING 5 Investigators’ “Money Down the Drain” series revealed that dozens of “special purpose taxing districts” had refused the state’s demands to comply with audits.

Max Jaquez, a longtime commissioner of Drainage District No. 23, told KING 5 in 2019 that claims that the auditor could not examine their records were “…a bunch of bull.” Jaquez denied wrongdoing on behalf of himself and Commission President Dave Lamberson.

Credit: KING 5
Pierce County Drainage District No. 23 commissioners Jason Pearsall, Dave Lamberson, and Max Jaquez.

He said records were on file with Pierce County government that would have allowed them to audit. 

However, the auditor’s office requires specific records – that the county does not have – in order to complete its work.

After KING 5’s series, State Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle) sponsored a bill that now allows county governments to crack down on special districts in their boundaries that do not comply with auditing laws.

The law, which took effect this summer, allows counties to withhold funding from non-compliant special purpose districts. If districts continue to refuse, they can be disbanded under House Bill 2588.

McCarthy said that has helped reduce the number of “unauditable” governments from 40 last year down to the current number of 15.

“Even if you’re a small little drainage district it’s not too onerous to be accountable for public dollars,” said McCarthy.

In Drainage District No. 23, Commissioner Dave Lamberson paid himself as “foreman” of the 2018 ditch cleaning project. He hired friends and family to trim grass and other vegetation around the 83-year-old trench system that runs through neighborhoods and farmland around Fife.

The auditor’s office said there is nothing prohibiting that. However, auditors found Lamberson paid himself $4,991 for work in July 2018 when state law allows commissioners to receive a maximum of only $1,500 per month.

“We were not aware…” of that law, the District 23 commissioners wrote in response to the audit.

In 2019, Lamberson did not respond when a KING 5 reporter knocked on the door of his Fife home and left messages.