The first day in the Civil Service Commission hearing for former Enumclaw Police Lt. Eric Sortland who is appealing his termination last October, stretched across 11 hours Friday and included eight witnesses for the city of Enumclaw as it made its case for two disciplinary actions taken against Sortland last year, including his termination.
According to John Kugler, the attorney representing the city, Sortland had been a problematic subordinate for Chief Jim Zoll since . Every effort that Zoll has made in taking disciplinary action against Sortland spurred by a report of policy violation from another member of the department has resulted in a countermove by Sortland against the chief, he said.
The last straw came last year when Sortland alleged that Zoll had assaulted him following a heated office exchange regarding a recent state audit of the department. Auburn Police investigators looked into the incident and found there was no way to prove the assault; the city fired Sortland shortly after.
Sortland disliked Zoll, said Kugler, and took it upon himself to groom young officers to distrust him, frequently attacking his intelligence and abilities and utilizing intimidation and threats as a way to manipulate others in the department to join his ‘camp’ against Zoll.
Brett Purtzer, who is representing Sortland, expanded the relationship assessment and said there was a mutual dislike between the two men. He pointed out that Sortland has been with the Enumclaw Police Department since 1985 and has served nine chiefs with no issues until Zoll joined the department. Zoll has tried to ostracize him, Purtzer said, and exclude him from matters related to command staff.
The assault allegation against Zoll stemmed from Sortland being ‘aghast’ that the chief made physical contact with him during their argument, Purtzer said, and in accordance with policy, Sortland saw that he needed to report the incident. Contesting the city’s allegation that Sortland was insubordinate, Purtzer said Sortland was doing his job by officially reporting misconduct when that policy is rarely followed in Enumclaw and officers prefer the unofficial rumor mill. The department is dysfunctional in terms of chain of command, he said, and it stems from Zoll.
As an example, Purtzer used an as an example of employees not reporting alleged misconduct when they’re supposed to. In this case, Zilbauer’s grievance was only aired three years after the fact, after the city commissioned an outside party, Don Austin, to conduct an investigation into Sortland’s allegations of a hostile work environment and workplace harassment against Zoll in 2010.
Department policy dictates that officers report misconduct, Purtzer said, and there was no mention made to anybody at anytime of issues they had with Sortland until the Austin investigation began. “Our position is there is no policy violation and no basis for any type of sanction,” he said.
The hearing continues Saturday and possibly Sunday at City Hall.
Reporter's Notebook - Friday Testimonies:
Investigator and Attorney Don Austin: Austin said he was initially asked by the city to investigate Sortland’s hostile workplace allegations in 2011 but during the course of his interviews with department personnel found just cause to mention to City Administrator Mike Thomas his concerns that there was a potential liability issue for the city in terms of . He was then asked to conduct a separate investigation in that respect. Austin submitted substantial interview notes along with his conclusions from his investigations though he clarified for Purtzer that he did not tape record the interviews and so his paperwork is a combination of verbatim dialogue as well as summaries.
Austin said he found Sortland’s complaint of a hostile work environment was not sustained and that he was treated differently based on the duties he had that differed from that of Lt. Bob Huebler. He said he found that there was division within the department with people in either Sortland’s or Zoll’s camps.
With regards to Zilbauer’s allegations of sexual discrimination and harassment, Austin said he did find she was being treated differently than Officer Chris Grant who was hired at the same time as she was to corrections. Because of that and they both have very similar jobs, Grant provided a good comparison for his investigation.
Officer Tony Ryan: Ryan had a personal history with Sortland as his father worked with him in Buckley and he remembers him even as a child. Before the current proceedings began, Ryan said he looked up to him and considered him a friend.
Ryan recalled witnessing Sortland misrepresent himself as a King County Sheriff’s deputy during a December 2007 Christmas parade in Lake Forest Park where they were both working an off-duty assignment. In responding to a juvenile domestic disturbance in a residential area, Ryan said they were in Sortland’s unmarked car and approached the home to handle the call. Before and afterwards, they noted they were being followed by another vehicle. Ryan said he was driving and Sortland was in the passenger seat. When Sortland rolled down a window to speak to the other vehicle’s occupants, they asked who the men worked for. Ryan said Sortland told him “We’re with King County.” They asked if they were deputies. Sortland said yes. From Precinct 2? Again, yes. The other man then identified himself as a detective with Precinct 2, said that he doesn’t know them and had them pull over. Kenmore police officers then approached before Ryan and Sortland sorted the situation.
Ryan asserts Sortland manipulated him as a young impressionable officer to act against Zoll including confronting him and telling him he was wrong and writing a letter detailing alleged wrongdoing on Zoll’s part for Sortland. Ryan said he later apologized to the chief for his actions. He was ‘hysterically in tears about it,’ Ryan said.
After his about face, he said Sortland retaliated against him by withholding a letter of commendation that was submitted to the department for him.
Purtzer pointed out that Ryan was one of 10 officers who had signed a letter representing the Enumclaw Police Officer’s Association in January 2008 contesting disciplinary actions that Zoll had taken against Sortland for violation of policy with regards to a narcotics traffic arrest and inappropriately furnishing a corrections officer with a weapon for that purpose. Ryan said he signed it so he could be on the winning team but no longer believes what the letter asserts about the chief.
Det. Mark Leitl: Leitl said early on in his career in Enumclaw, he was involved in a traffic accident and Zoll was angry about it. Sortland told him he had advocated for him in front of Zoll. Consequently, he felt indebted to Sortland, but Huebler later told him that wasn’t the case. Leitl said Sortland liked to ‘stir the pot’ and watch others get upset at Zoll’s expense.
Leitl said following a more candid conversation with Sortland about his disagreement with how he was treating Zoll, Sortland subsequently pulled support for him in his undercover narcotics work. He let him go out on assignments alone and even when he was supposed to provide backup, was clearly not paying attention in the field. “I knew I couldn’t depend on Lt. Sortland for support should anything go wrong,” he said.
Leitl recalled that he was initially give Zilbauer’s background check to do but upon voicing doubt of Sortland’s initial assessment of her, he had the assignment pulled and given to Det. Grant McCall instead.
On the office confrontation, Leitl said he heard Sortland say, ‘you touched me; that’s assault,’ as Zoll exited the room.
Leitl, however, also did sign the same letter contesting Zoll’s actions against Sortland as presented by the Enumclaw Police Officer’s Association in January 2008, as Purtzer pointed out. It was Leitl’s narcotics case that Sortland had taken over that led to Zoll’s disciplinary action, and Leitl admitted he was upset by it. When asked why he signed, Leitl said then Guild President Sgt. Steve Robinson, who died in January 2011 from cancer, had asked him to sign it because it was defending the Guild officers, and he trusted him. Leitl did not read the letter at the time.
Sgt. Charles Hauswirth: Hauswirth was the person who reported Sortland during the narcotics traffic operation in which he gave an automatic assault rifle to Corrections Officer Grant, which spurred Zoll’s 5-day suspension for Sortland and the subsequent Guild letter contesting the action.
In his 2008 performance evaluation, Hauswirth said Sortland had his direct manager Sgt. Jon Buss include comment about being involved in spreading rumors in the agency.
Also, Sortland had removed him from assignments. When Hauswirth said he confronted Sortland, he told him that there were five people who wanted him removed and four were on his assignment team. “I know it’s not true because I talked with all those people,” Hauswirth said.
When Purtzer asked why he had signed the Guild letter in support of Sortland in the narcotics arrest incident, he said that Robinson had explained to him how Guild issues worked and so that, in combination with the threat that Sortland would know who had signed, spurred him to do it.
Corrections Officer Quintin Stewart: Stewart worked with both Grant and Zilbauer when they were hired at about the same time. Stewart said both made mistakes but Zilbauer was more likely to own up to them and learn not to make them again. He said he didn’t think Grant was up for the job while he was training him but when he told Sortland his opinion, he was told, “he’s a stud; he’s good to go – he can do the job.”
Stewart said he was reluctant to complete Grant’s training in the limited time allotted but he was concerned about consequences if he didn’t follow Sortland’s direction and “I liked working there.”
Stewart said Zilbauer was treated differently while Grant “got a pass” on most things. Sgt. Tyler Chilman did not ask Stewart to document the mistakes of the other corrections officers – just Zilbauer.
He said he couldn’t speak to how shifts were assigned other than he liked to work graveyard. At Purtzer’s prodding, Stewart said he didn’t like to work shifts after Zilbauer, but added nor did he like to after Grant.
Officer Nona Zilbauer: Zilbauer taped a video deposition as she was on vacation. She described her experience as a corrections officer in the Enumclaw jail as “the worst experience I’ve ever had at a job.” She said her direct supervisor, Chilman, routinely told her that Sortland was angry with her but no details every came forth about what exactly even when she asked for them.
She said she wasn’t being rotated out of graveyard shifts though the officers were supposed to rotate every four months. She refused to sign the Guild letter supporting Sortland and feels she was retaliated against for that.
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Editor’s Note: As the meeting ran past my scheduled time to be in attendance, I do not have notes from the testimonies of Lt. Bob Huebler, Chief Jim Zoll and City Administrator Mike Thomas at this time. If you were there and would like to contribute to the notes here or amend the existing notes, please do so in the comments area below.