Trial could shed light on agency under a cloud
Special to The Times
Ida Leggett, executive director of the Washington State Sentencing Guidelines Commission, has earned accolades as a pioneering female jurist. An African American, she grew up in segregated Alabama, graduated from Gonzaga University School of Law, then clerked for a Washington Supreme Court justice. After work as a private attorney and government staffer, Leggett became a district court judge in Idaho in 1992. She left in 1998, publicly citing stress.
Following her hiring by Washington state in 2000, Leggett's story has soured. A state Human Rights Commission investigation has found reasonable cause to believe Leggett last year fired her executive assistant, Sharon Ziegler, now 65, based on Ziegler's age and participation in a whistle-blower probe by state Auditor Brian Sonntag.
The prickly topic of Sonntag's inquiry was personal use of office computers, a continuing problem at the Sentencing Guidelines Commission (SGC) ever since Sonntag's office determined adult Web sites had been visited on the work computer of Leggett's predecessor Roger Goodman, who resigned.
The Human Rights Commission (HRC) findings on Leggett are attached to a wrongful-termination lawsuit filed against the SGC last month by Ziegler, of Olympia, in Thurston County Superior Court. In their written conclusion, HRC investigator Laura Lindstrand and district manager Arthur A. Stratton say evidence indicates Ziegler suffered a violation of RCW 49.60, the state law against discrimination, based on ageism and retaliatory firing at Leggett's hands.
Ziegler alleged that Leggett, 54, called her "an old woman," "an old hag," and facetiously instructed employees to take up a collection for a hearing aid and eyeglasses for her.
Leggett told Ziegler (a 17-year sentencing commission veteran) she was dismissed because of a staff reorganization, but Leggett told the HRC Ziegler was fired for her conduct and attitude. The HRC called this "a pretext for discrimination," adding Leggett couldn't document problems with Ziegler. Ziegler was replaced with someone 10 years younger, whom HRC investigators found unqualified.
A second wrongful-discharge suit was filed last month in federal court in Tacoma against Leggett, the SGC and commission chairman David Boerner. Former research director Nella Lee, of Olympia, alleges Leggett fired her for protesting a hostile work environment. Lee's suit also asserts Leggett made alarmingly violent comments and viewed employees as personal errand-doers for her.
Lee's action alleges that as part of a pattern of "bizarre" or "inappropriate" behavior, Leggett cursed work associates with the "F" word; said she was "going to kill," "going to shoot" and "going to have to murder" other colleagues; and used office staff for personal services, on state time.
Lee charges that in retaliation for sharing her worries with Boerner, a Seattle University School of Law professor, she was wrongfully fired by Leggett.
Boerner says he firmly stands by an investigation he ordered that exonerated Leggett. It was conducted by Washington Corrections Department official Kit Bail, a former SGC board co-chair. Boerner confirms Bail originally hired Leggett for a Corrections Department position, shortly before Leggett landed at SGC.
Bail provided no written record of her 2002 probe of Leggett, but none was necessary, Boerner says.
The day Bail told Boerner that Leggett was cleared, Leggett fired Lee, according to Lee's suit.
Attached to Lee's suit is a letter to Boerner from former commission research aide Jennifer Albright asserting Leggett indeed belittled Ziegler's age; threatened to "kill, shoot or smack every member of the staff at some time"; said she "hated white men in suits"; and "hates fat, white women."
Additionally, Albright protests to Boerner that Leggett asked employees to shop for her at Costco and do other personal errands on the state dime.
Albright, 27, an Alki resident with a master's degree in criminal justice from Washington State University, left of her own accord, landing at the Department of Corrections. She says, "It floored me, the stuff that went on" at the SGC. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't been working there."
Leggett recently told me workplace discord has improved, following "a few key staff changes." She conceded no wrongdoing. Last week she denied all charges against her, but declined further comment.
Boerner says the HRC investigation into Ziegler's claims was flawed, and Leggett's other accusers proffer information that's false, or exaggerated. He says, for instance, if Lee was truly alarmed about seemingly violent comments of Leggett's, she should have called 911. He adds if Leggett asked subordinates to shop for her at Costco, they must have been friends, and the shopping done off the clock.
The SGC's mission is to ensure sentencing is based on fair and equal standards, and good information. Those are worthy values, applicable here as well.
Both the accused and the accusers have important rights. Leggett should welcome a chance to clear her name. Anything less than a trial of the civil lawsuits with Leggett, the plaintiffs and other relevant witnesses on the stand, would fail to resolve serious questions.
Seattle writer Matt Rosenberg is a regular contributor to editorial pages of The Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.