Whatcom deputy's wrongful termination lawsuit settled for $300K

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 1, 2014 

Whatcom County's insurer paid $300,000 to settle a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by a former sheriff's deputy, but the sheriff said the county would have won the case had it gone to court.

Paul Murphy claimed in the suit that he was fired in June 2012 because he used Facebook to campaign against Sheriff Bill Elfo's re-election bid the previous year.

Murphy's complaint, filed in April 2013 in U.S. District Court in Seattle, claimed "inquiries were made" - presumably by the sheriff - to the county attorney to find out if Murphy could be fired for his activity on Facebook. When the attorney advised against that, Elfo "began looking for reasons" to fire Murphy, the complaint stated.

"Elfo created a work environment in which political loyalty to the sheriff or, at the very least, refraining from engaging in political opposition to the Sheriff are conditions of employment," the complaint said.

The county and Elfo, in their response brief, denied Murphy's account of how he was fired, and denied there was an atmosphere of political repression in the Sheriff's Office.

"I flatly deny all of the allegations that his discharge was for the position he took in my election or any other election. I understand employees have speech rights," Elfo said in an interview. "He was discharged for failing to follow the rules and regulations."

Those rules applied to how Murphy handled his work computer, Elfo said in an interview and a termination letter to Murphy dated June 22, 2012.

Murphy maintained "intelligence files" on citizens and refused to provide them to the Sheriff's Office once their existence became known, Elfo said.

"We can't have officers maintaining private intelligence files. It's against the law," Elfo said.

The Sheriff's Office had evidence Murphy took the hard drive out of his county-issued laptop and replaced it with one of his own, according to the letter. The county hard drive contained software that gave access to restricted state and national criminal databases, Elfo said.

Murphy could still have access to those databases, Elfo said.

"Theoretically he could, and that's a concern of ours. And to date he hasn't been able to produce (the hard drive)," the sheriff said.

Murphy's story changed about the status of the hard drive and the files he kept on citizens, according to the letter and Elfo. On different occasions, Murphy said he had wiped the hard drive and that he couldn't remember whether he had deleted the files, the letter said.

"Murphy denies that he was at any time dishonest during the internal investigation," Emily Beschen, Murphy's attorney, said in an email to The Bellingham Herald. "Emails during that time period show Murphy was going above and beyond to cooperate."

Beschen indicated nothing unusual happened with Murphy's computer.

"Through the course of discovery it was determined that many county-issued computers are modified," she wrote.

As part of the settlement, submitted by both sides on Thursday, March 27, for the judge's approval, Murphy agreed to resign from his position. In the lawsuit, Murphy had asked to be reinstated.

"I'm just relieved that he's not going to be working in law enforcement again," Elfo said.

Elfo opposed the settlement, but Murphy dropped Elfo's name from the lawsuit less than a week before the deal was filed in court.

The state's county-insurance risk pool had confidence Whatcom County would win the case, Elfo said, but decided to pay $300,000 to avoid an eight-day trial in Seattle that would have been much more expensive. The jury trial was scheduled to begin May 19.

"It's a shame to see him walk away with $300,000, but the risk pool had to make a business decision," Elfo said.

Beschen said information gathered in depositions from more than 20 deputies and county employees made her confident Murphy would have won at trial.

Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2298.

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