By LOU MARZELES
Gorge News Report
Lori Hoctor, a candidate for the office of Klickitat County Prosecuting Attorney, says she was fired as a deputy prosecutor after informing Prosecuting Attorney Tim O'Neill that she intended to run for the office. O'Neill counters that the real reason for her dismissal was the potential for adverse impact on office productivity by her candidacy.
Now, a federal agency is involved and is determining whether federal law has been violated.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is the federal agency charged with enforcement of the Hatch Act, and the agency is currently examining events in the Prosecuting Attorney's office to determine if actions there are in violation of the Act.
Another deputy prosecuting attorney and candidate for the position of Prosecuting Attorney, Dave Brown, approached the agency after concluding that it probably fell under the Hatch Act.
"I considered the possibility that the Hatch Act might be involved here," said Brown. "I did some research and I spoke with an employment attorney, and my conclusion was, yes, the Hatch Act probably does apply here."
Meanwhile, Brown is still employed in the Prosecuting Attorney's Office, while Hoctor is not.
The Hatch Act was enacted during the New Deal years of President Franklin D. Roosevelt that, among other things, protects federal employees from discrimination based on their political views or activities. In addition to federal employees, it also covers state and/or county employees if their positions are paid for, in any part, by federal money.
In Klickitat County, both Hoctor's and Brown's positions were/are paid for in part with federal funds.
A legal opinion from the OSC is expected soon.
Hoctor said she was fired -- technically, her appointment as a deputy prosecuting attorney was withdrawn -- because she told O'Neill she intended to run against Craig Juris, an employee in the same office who is now campaigning to be Prosecuting Attorney.
"Tim came to me and said, `Lori, I've heard you intend to run,'" Hoctor said. "I told him, `I can't discuss this in the office.' Tim said, `That's fine.' Then Friday [Jan. 15, 2010], Tim walked me down to Human Resources and told me, `You've done a wonderful job, but I can't have you running against Craig.' Randi Post, the personnel manager, was there, and there are others who can corroborate this."
Hoctor added: "Dave Brown is also running for the same position. There were three males in the office running for that position. I'm the only one who was fired."
"I know why I released her from her position," O'Neill explained. "And that's not the reason. I know how elections can affect an office. I know how it can affect productivity. And I have complete discretion to withdraw an appointment at any time, for any reason."
O'Neill said Hoctor's appointment was withdrawn solely because he felt Hoctor's candidacy would adversely affect the office's morale and productivity.
"I withdrew her appointment as deputy prosecuting attorney the morning of Jan. 15," O'Neill said. "She was put on administrative leave Jan. 19, and that was done for the purposes of her getting additional benefits at her discharge. Immediately afterward, she held a meeting in which she said she had already consulted an attorney and was going to sue the county. She said that to me and to Randi Post."
Hoctor denies any intention of suing the county, now or in the future.
Brown explained that he contacted the OSC about the situation and was told, ironically, that he would have to have his supervisor contact the OSC in order for the agency to look into the matter. Brown went to O'Neill with this information, and O'Neill contacted the OSC.
While awaiting the OSC's opinion, O'Neill says, he chose not to take action regarding Brown's candidacy.
"I'm waiting for the Hatch Act investigation to come back," O'Neill pointed out.
O'Neill said if it's determined that the Hatch Act covers Juris and Brown, they would both have to resign.
Brown noted that if the OSC's opinion is that the Hatch Act does indeed apply, he is prepared to step down as a county employee in order to run for office.
Goldendale City Council member Mike Montanye is among those who have raised a critical voice against Hoctor's firing and its Hatch Act ramifications.
"It's illegal, what happened to her," Montanye said.
O'Neill said he wonders why Montanye hasn't come and talked with him about the matter.
"The people talking about it don't raise it with me," O'Neill said. "You would think if people have problems with the termination of Ms. Hoctor, they'd come to me about it. But no one has."