BENTON COUNTY — Benton County residents have been scratching their heads over an unusual rash of high stakes internal investigations and actions taken by Benton County elected officials over the past five months. On the heels of a Benton County Sheriff investigation, a five-month Port of Benton internal investigation was brought to light in a Special Port Commission meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 26.
Following discussion and acceptance of the investigation findings, Interim Port Executive Director, Diahann Howard, was appointed permanent Port Executive Director by a 2-1 vote. Commissioners Roy Keck and Robert Larson voted yes, with dissenting vote by Commissioner Jane Hagarty.
Howard replaces former, 30-year director Scott Keller, who retired abruptly in June 2019. Howard began with the port in 2006, serving as the Director of Economic Development and Government Affairs.
The completed investigation results were made public during the Nov. 26, port meeting, and again, in a courtesy email to media outlets in the region, by investigator Lucinda J. Luke, attorney-partner with Carney Badley Spellman, P.S., of Seattle, Wash.
Early in the five-month 2019 executive director search period, a substantial complaint was filed by four unnamed Port employees, alleging six grievances. The complaint alleged violation of open public meeting law by commissioners, favoritism shown by Commissioner Keck towards candidate Howard, hostile and intimidating treatment by Keck to staff; retaliatory actions by Howard against employees following the complaint filing; public shaming of port staff by Keck and Howard and use of a consultant without a contract. The investigation did, according to Luke, “taint” the impact the executive director search process. Other findings by Luke were: Howard did hire an employment consultant following the employee complaint, without an approval; commissioners did not break open public meeting law; Commissioner Keck did repeat comments from an executive session, but this question was outside the scope of the investigation, Howard’s response to the complaint fell into the threshold of retaliation; Keck’s political campaign “actions have, on a more probable than not basis, impacted the way in which the other two commissioners view the candidates,” wrote Luke.
Keck also expressed complaints against staff, which the investigator included in her review. One concern was his phone being tapped. These complaints were examined and found to lack evidence.