Fired deputy prosecutor gets $300,000

Commissioner Mike Shelton recused from settlement vote

A former Island County deputy prosecutor, who said alleged politicking in the prosecutor’s office turned so ugly that she got sick, will get $300,000 in a settlement.

Attorneys for Island County’s insurance carrier, the Washington Counties Risk Pool, settled a damage claim made by Amy Dempsey against Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks, chief criminal deputy Andrea Vingo, the Island County Prosecutor’s Office and Island County.

While $300,000 is a large chunk of money, it’s much less than the $525,000 damage claim and $425,000 whistleblower complaint she had originally filed in January.

Claim centered on campaign pressure

Dempsey alleged in her claim and complaint that Banks pressured and harassed her to support his reelection campaign last fall.

But the case never made it to court. The county’s insurer settled late last week. Dempsey signed the agreement Friday, June 28.

“Amy is satisfied with the outcome because the case was resolved quickly without the need to file a lawsuit that takes one into a long emotionally draining court ordeal,” said Peter Moote, Dempsey’s lawyer.

Though the amount was less what was sought, it was a respectable amount, the Freeland-based attorney said.

“Under these circumstances Amy feels this was a fair settlement. But, make no mistake, this settlement is a complete vindication of Amy and a statement proving the wrongful conduct of the Prosecutor’s Office,” he said.

“We did a lot of investigation work before we filed the claim for damages and the defendants and their representatives saw that we could clearly prove our case,” Moote added.

Even though Banks said he was glad to put the issue behind him, he was disappointed that he didn’t get to tell his side of the story in court.

A court battle would have been more costly, however, and Banks said the settlement was an economic decision made by the county’s insurer.

“Principles are expensive,” Banks said.

Insurance made the call

Vyrle Hill, executive director of Washington Counties Risk Pool, was tightlipped about how the insurer came up with the settlement amount. He said the county had little input.

“Ultimately, the settlement was determined by the risk pool,” Hill said.

Several attorneys worked out the deal.

Hill said the claim manager and the risk pool’s board of directors looked at several indicators that compared the outcomes of comparable cases, the likelihood of a verdict for the defense, the validity of the claim and how much it would have cost to take the case through a trial.

“The risk pool made the most prudent business decision on behalf of all counties,” Hill said.

The settlement could change how much the county pays for insurance, but Hill said the difference would be minimal.

“Insurance fees are based on an experience modifier,” Hill explained. “Every time there is a negative experience fees slightly adjust.”

Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton, who also serves on the board of the Washington Counties Risk Pool, said it was a standard settlement for the risk pool and the county.

Shelton did not vote on the settlement as a member of the insurer’s board because it concerned his home county.

Shelton said he has worked on comparable cases, and the settlement amount wasn’t out of line.

“I am never fine with paying out $300,000, but it was probably better than the alternative,” Shelton said.

A campaign gone bad

Dempsey claimed that she was under pressure to support Banks for reelection from her first day on the job when she started working for the county in June 2006.

When Dempsey did get involved in the campaign, it was to support Banks’ opponent in the race, Steve Selby.

At the time of her arrival, the race for prosecutor had split the office. Most deputy prosecutors supported Selby, who was fired from his position as chief criminal deputy at the prosecutor’s office after launching a campaign for the prosecutor’s job without telling Banks.

The campaign was one of the most bitter and divisive that Island County has seen in years.

During the campaign, Selby attacked Banks’ management style, work load and personal demeanor.

Banks spent much of the campaign focusing on his experience in the job, but was often caught up in responding to missives from the Selby camp.

Banks said Monday he couldn’t discuss the details of the settlement, but said Dempsey stopped coming to work on election day and never came back to work. She was not reappointed to her position when her appointment as a deputy prosecutor expired at the end of the year, but Banks said he gave her ample warning.

“She still had not shown up for work as of January, and I had to let her go to make room for a working replacement,” he said. “She then demanded nearly $1 million based on allegations that are untrue.”

The week after the election, Dempsey’s attorney sent the county a letter and a doctor’s statement requesting a medical leave for Dempsey.

Dempsey was not eligible for medical leave because of her short employment tenure with the county; employees must work for the county for one year before they are eligible to take leave under the county’s family medical leave policy.

County commissioners granted Dempsey a “leave of absence” from work on Nov. 20.

Dempsey wanted nearly $1 million

In her claim, Dempsey alleged she was wrongfully fired.

She also claimed her right to free speech was violated, that she was the victim of discrimination, and her civil rights were violated. She also said she was subject to a hostile work environment, was defamed, and was subject to retaliation for being fired on Jan. 3.

The claim for $525,000 sought pay past wages and benefits totaling $15,000, plus future wages and benefits of $100,000. Dempsey also wanted medical expenses of $25,000, incidental damages of $10,000, general damages of $250,000 and punitive damages of $100,000. She also asked for $25,000 so she could repay her student loan.

Dempsey’s lawyer cited Dempsey, Banks, Vingo and Selby as witnesses to the case, as well as former deputy prosecutors, County Commissioner Mac McDowell, and the publisher and editor of The Whidbey News Times.

Letter of recommendation

As part of the settlement, Dempsey got a letter of recommendation from Banks.

Banks said he gave her a “fair” letter, saying that while she was employed at the office and actually worked, she did her job and he had confidence in her.

The letter of recommendation was very positive stating that she performed her lawyer duties at a high level, Moote said.

“She was an asset to the Island County Prosecutor’s Office and would be an asset to any law firm hiring her,” Moote said. “This letter was true and was needed to remove the cloud over her caused by the circumstances surrounding her last few months of work and then being wrongly fired.”

Prosecutor wanted his day in court

Banks remains confident that he would have been cleared if the case would have gone to court.

He said he was opposed to a settlement.

“I said, don’t pay her a dime,” Banks said.

“I would have liked to have my opportunity to say what happened,” he added. “But for the risk pool it was about dimes and nickels and avoiding the expense of a trial.”

However, Banks said he understands the pool’s reasoning behind the settlement.

“The legal fees to defend this suit would have far exceeded the $300,000 the risk pool agreed to pay to Ms. Dempsey and her lawyer,” he said. “In a recent Thurston County employment lawsuit that went to trial, the county’s legal fees alone exceeded $1 million.”

The costs to Island County to defend and settle this case was $10,000. The rest will come from the insurer.

Moote declined to say how much he will make in legal fees from the Dempsey case.

Banks said the settlement means an end to the dispute. Dragging out the fight would have had a detrimental effect on the Prosecutor’s Office, as Banks and Vingo would have been tied up with depositions, consultations and a trial, Banks said.

Office morale would have been damaged by media coverage, too.

“There is some benefit to just closing it out. It’s hanging over the office. It affects morale. We were working and living in a fishbowl for nine months,” Banks said.

In the long run, Banks said he will be vindicated by the continued successes of his office, and the hard work of his dedicated deputies and staff.

However, he expects political opponents to dust off the issue in time for the next election.

“I am sure it’ll pop up,” he said. “In my experience with election in this county, they’ll manufacture dirt if needed.”

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