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Spokane County Corrections Officials Accused of Cover-up

An independent counsel hired by Spokane County, Washington, says that top officials at the county's Geiger Corrections Center wrongly fired a former guard and then conspired to falsify evidence so the firing would stick. The guard, Sandra "Sunny" Pilkington, was fired for misconduct in 1992 for allegedly hugging one prisoner and being alone in a darkened room with another, charges that she bitterly contested.

Pilkington was reinstated after an arbitration hearing and she later filed a federal lawsuit. The county then hired Seattle attorney Thao Tiedt as an independent investigator on advice of officials at the Washington Counties Risk Pool, the insurance pool for self-insured counties.

Tiedt completed her report, which cost the county $49,000, in early 1997. Eight months later, a five-page summary of the report was obtained by a Spokane newspaper from a source identified only as "Concerned". The most serious accusations contained in the Tiedt report are aimed at county corrections director Gary Oberg and Kay Walter, a former Geiger administrator and current superintendent of the state Airway Heights prison. The facts as reported in the Spokane Spokesmen Review are as follows:

Pilkington once told supervisors at Geiger that Geiger van driver Michael Horstman was drinking on the job. It was Horstman who later accused Pilkington of misconduct. Pilkington was fired for having "inappropriate contact" with a prisoner. Horstman was then promoted to corrections officer and given Pilkington's badge number.

At Pilkington's union arbitration hearing, the county presented a key piece of evidence a videotape (produced by Horstman and fellow guard Edwin Rosario) showing the room where Horstman said he caught Pilkington with the prisoner. At the arbitration hearing, though, county officials admitted the tape had been doctored. After the hearing, Horstman and Rosario were placed on paid leave while Geiger administrator Mike Pannek investigated whether Pilkington had been wronged.

"Mr. Pannek did what I can only conclude was a cursory investigation" before reinstating Horstman and Rosario, Tiedt wrote.

"At best, the Geiger administration has attempted to sweep the whole issue regarding false evidence under the rug. At worst, there has been a concerted effort to keep this matter hidden."

Tiedt wrote that Gieger officials knew Horstman was accompanied by another prisoner when he claimed to have caught Pilkington in the darkened room. That prisoner was ready to testify that Pilkington had done nothing wrong, Tiedt wrote. She concluded that Oberg and Walter told the witness to "forget" what he saw. Oberg "abused his power" and Walter "participated in the cover-up of the truth," Tiedt wrote.

Walter denies any wrongdoing. Oberg's attorney says his client passed a lie detector test in which he denied wrongdoing, and Pannek refused to comment on the advice of county attorneys.

After Pannek's internal "investigation", Pilkington convinced county Sheriff's Sgt. Ron Ethridge to investigate. Ethridge did so, reluctantly at first, but soon accepted Pilkington's theory that Gieger employees conspired against her and fabricated evidence and that Gieger and county administrators then conspired to cover-up the incident.

Ethridge said the doctoring of the videotape "was blatant" and obvious to anyone who watched it. His investigation led to evidence tampering charges against Horstman and Rosario.

The charge against Rosario was dropped because a county prosecutor missed a court date. A judge dismissed the charge against Horstman because the videotape didn't meet the legal definition of evidence.Walter continues in her job as superintendent of the Airway Heights Correction Center.

Unable to obtain justice on any level from the county, Pilkington filed a federal lawsuit, scheduled to go to trial sometime in 1998.

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