Port of Seattle won’t explain ouster of top lawyer, who gets $500,000 plus a paycheck through August

Article Summary:

The Port again declined to provide any information about the original complaint against its chief counsel or the investigation of him, and indicated it will not provide the public with any further details.

The Port of Seattle’s top lawyer, ousted this week after the investigation of a workplace complaint, has been on paid leave since March and will continue receiving his paycheck for the next two months, Port officials disclosed Thursday as they released a settlement agreement that also provides him a final $500,000 payout.

While officials provided some new details on the separation deal with longtime Chief Counsel Craig Watson, they again refused to say what exactly happened to prompt the agency to launch an investigation into its top lawyer, and why it lost trust in him.

Port commissioners on Tuesday voted unanimously to approve the agreement with Watson, who’s been with the Port 28 years, including the last 13 as chief counsel. He had been under investigation for an alleged violation of the Port’s anti-harassment policy.

Port officials said a review found the alleged incident did not meet the legal requirements to justify termination, but that the commissioners and Executive Director Stephen Metruck had “lost trust and confidence in Mr. Watson’s ability to carry out his duties and responsibilities.” Metruck added that employees “are entitled to work in a safe, positive and inclusive environment that is free of harassment and discrimination.”

A Port spokesman declined further comment, as did Watson. Port commissioners Ryan Calkins, Fred Felleman and Peter Steinbrueck all declined comment, while Commission President Courtney Gregoire and Vice President Stephanie Bowman did not return messages seeking comment. The commissioners quickly voted on the settlement Tuesday without any discussion.

The Port also rejected a request under the Public Records Act to release the findings of the outside investigation, saying the information is exempt as a matter of“attorney/client privilege.” Port officials indicated they don’t intend to provide the public with any other information about the episode.

The few new details released Thursday help shed at least some light on the events and add new details on additional money Watson will earn from the Port:

Watson had been on leave since late March, when the agency committed to spend about $46,000 for an outside law firm and private investigator to investigate a complaint made against him by another employee.

Based on that outside investigation, the Port decided to discipline Watson. But Watson disputed the findings and indicated he would fight them through the normal internal hearing process the Port uses for disciplinary actions, and possibly in court.

Watson offered to retire early in exchange for the payout and the Port agreed, to avoid what could have been a costly and lengthy process. Watson admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement, and agreed to a non-disparagement clause that prevents him from saying anything negative about the Port. (The Port is not limited by any such clause.) The Port said that it was also concerned about a conflict of interest since Watson oversaw the Port’s employee disciplinary system.

He will stay on through Aug. 31, working from home as a staff attorney under the chief operating officer.

Watson currently makes $245,000 a year. So in addition to the $500,000 settlement, he will have made an additional $102,000 from the Port for the full five months since being relieved of his previous job title. He’ll also be paid for any unused vacation and sick time.

The ouster follows several other high-level officials resigning at the Port over the last decade, most recently the CEO last year.

Staff writer Daniel Gilbert contributed to this report.