Photo depicting a close-up shot of a gavel resting next to a stack of law books.

OIG Fired Auditor for Alleged Misconduct, but Court Disagreed

Auditor Fired Shortly After Attempt to Open Misconduct Investigation into OPA

by Carolyn Bick

The Emerald’s Watchdragon reporting seeks to increase accountability within our city’s institutions through in-depth investigative journalism.

The Emerald has obtained a copy of a 2019 termination letter that the Office of Inspector General (OIG)’s Inspector General Lisa Judge sent to former OIG staffer Sarah Lippek. The letter shows that the OIG fired Lippek for alleged misconduct, including, among other things, allegedly fully certifying a single Office of Police Accountability (OPA) case without accessing information beyond the initial intake.

However, in a judicial determination in the appeal Lippek made when the City of Seattle contested her initial unemployment claim, the court found that despite bringing more than 100 exhibits, the City presented insufficient evidence for Lippek to have been fired for misconduct and noted that she did not have any disciplinary history. Lippek won the unemployment appeal.

In contrast, less than two years later, when the OIG was made aware of more than 30 instances in which now-former OIG auditor Anthony Finnell had certified OPA cases without reviewing reports or evidence — not opening even a single document in some cases he fully certified — it allowed Finnell to not only retain his position but also allowed him to continue certifying cases

The OIG also appears to have allowed Finnell to resign, rather than firing him. Finnell now works for Lassen Peak in Bellevue, and retains his position as vice president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) board.

The letter Judge sent to Lippek states that now-former OPA Dir. Andrew Myerberg had contacted Judge and now-former Deputy Inspector General Amy Tsai with “several issues of concern to OPA regarding OIG reviews of investigations.” Judge notes in the letter that Myerberg’s memo is attached and continues to briefly describe to Lippek the actions she and Tsai took.

Lippek writes in court documents that Myerberg sent this memo to Judge and Tsai just days after Lippek says she attempted to open a misconduct investigation into his office. The investigation concerned evidence Lippek had discovered that appeared to show a police officer working as an OPA investigator stating — in an official OPA complaint intake follow-up they were helming — that a complaint should be dismissed based on an email address that the officer claimed showed a political bent. 

The City’s Municipal Code forbids officers from collecting political information except under specific circumstances and only with special authorization. Furthermore, political ideology is considered a protected class, and SPD’s own rules forbid officers from making decisions based on biases regarding, among other things, political ideology.

The Emerald will revisit this matter in a forthcoming article.

“To my knowledge, Mr. Myerberg’s actions successfully diverted the attention of the OIG away from misconduct by police officers in the OPA — it does not appear that any investigation has resulted from my allegations,” Lippek writes.

Judge states in her letter that she placed Lippek on administrative leave on July 3, 2019, following a meeting she and Tsai had with Lippek. Though she does not say when the request was made, Judge writes in the termination letter that “OIG asked the Seattle Department of Human Resources (SDHR) to conduct fact-finding for the allegations raised by Director Myerberg.”

“SDHR has completed its investigation. SDHR concluded that Director Myerberg’s allegations were supported by the evidence. Most notably you certified a case for timeliness, thoroughness, and objectivity, but you had not reviewed any information beyond the original intake investigation. This was confirmed by the IAPro audit log which identifies every time the case file is opened.

“Your actions that were the subject of Director Myerberg’s allegations constitute significant misconduct and compromise the credibility of OIG. Accordingly, by this letter l am notifying you that your employment with OIG is terminated effective immediately,” the letter closes.

Myerberg’s memo precisely dates and timestamps Lippek’s electronic movements in the process of detailing the allegations that SDHR would later investigate and agree with. 

In the memo, Myerberg alleges that Lippek knowingly provided incorrect dates in two cases, and knowingly provided an incorrect certification in one case with a changed deadline. He notes that she did not spend much time in the case to review it, contrasting it with the “over three hours” he spent reviewing the file to write his Director’s Certification Memo (DCM).

He also alleges that Lippek did not thoroughly review another case and that her review of the documents was incomplete and too swift when she did review it. Myerberg writes that the certification was also late. Finally, he alleges that she twice “improperly” accessed a casefile from which she had previously recused herself.

“OPA, like the OIG, is committed to the ongoing integrity of the accountability regime,” Myerberg closes. “The failure of the OIG to complete sufficient case reviews, the insertion of incorrect dates on certification memorandums, the making of potential knowingly inaccurate statements in IAPro routings, and the improper accessing of cases have impacted OPA’s internal confidence in reviews by the OIG and run the risk of undermining public confidence in the overall system.”

In the rebuttal packet submitted to the court, Lippek refutes much of what Myerberg’s memo claims.

In addressing the incorrect dates, Lippek admits that while the dates were indeed incorrect, they were typos — “human error” — and that they could have easily been corrected “in a timely way,” had the matter been brought to her attention.

However, with regard to the incorrectly certified case, Lippek states that while this was indeed an error owing to her “likely” confusing the case in question with another one (and, again, one that she states was “easily correctable”), it was also because she was under pressure because of the change in deadline Myerberg alludes to in his memo — and, according to Lippek, “Myerberg had not notified me or anyone in OIG that he was going to begin imposing this deadline — the first hint we got was after he had retroactively decided some cases were overdue and self-certified them.

“I was trying to make sure all of the older cases that were suddenly being subjected to the retroactive deadline were completed, and in my haste I made an error. I recognized the fact pattern of the case, and I believed I had already reviewed it. I was wrong, and this was an error,” Lippek writes. “It was not, as alleged by Mr. Myerberg, ‘knowingly inaccurate.’ There is no evidence whatsoever that the error was intentional rather than a simple mistake.

“Again, had this mistake been brought to my attention, or to the attention of my supervisor, at the time, I easily could have opened the case and completed the review. The error could have been corrected, with no material harm done,” Lippek continues.

With respect to Myerberg’s assertion that Lippek did not thoroughly review another case, Lippek writes that it was “a very simple case” with brief documents. She also writes that she “generally read[s] at an above-average speed and … was able to quickly review the short document for certification. 

“No one has questioned the correctness of my certification, and no claim has ever been made that I should not have certified the case. I do not believe I made any error in my review of this case: I reviewed it, I certified it, and my certification came to the correct conclusion,” Lippek writes.

Finally, with regards to the case from which Lippek recused herself but allegedly improperly accessed the casefile, she writes that she went to law school with the complainant and thus recused herself, “not because of any conflict of interest, but because I wanted to avoid even the hint that there could be an appearance of conflict of interest.”

In reopening the casefile, Lippek writes that she believes that she first reopened the casefile in order to “look at the case number and basic facts, in order to be able to describe it to my supervisor, so that she could review it herself or assign someone else to do it.” 

The second time she reopened the casefile appears to have been an accident. Lippek writes that the casefile appeared in her internal inbox. She said she opened the case not knowing that it was the case she had recused herself from and was simply concerned about missing a potential deadline.

“Because the complainant was not present during the incident that gave rise to [their] complaint, most of the documents in the casefile do not include the complainant’s name. I asked a question about the dismissal of an allegation after seeing a message about it in the IAPro messaging system. Again, I did not alter the casefile or cause any harm, I simply inadvertently looked at a case because I didn’t recognize that it was the one I had been recused from,” Lippek writes in her rebuttal.

 “As an OIG employee, I was authorized to view any OPA case at any time. There were no restrictions on my viewing of cases, as long as doing so pertained to my job duties. I opened this case for the purpose of fulfilling job duties, not for any improper reason. This had no effect on the case or its outcome, and I do not believe this was a mistake of any significance,” Lippek continues.

Lippek states that Myerberg “knew about these errors weeks before he made the allegations against me,” and that it appeared he had been “collecting allegations to level them all at once.

“He did so just days after he had been informed that I was trying to open a misconduct investigation against his office,” Lippek continues. “I do not believe that any of these errors would have been considered ‘major,’ let alone ‘misconduct,’ had they been presented to me or my supervisor in a normal phone call or email. The errors could have been quickly corrected, and there would not have been any negative consequences. I would have been given notice that [sic] to be more careful of my dates, and not to rush my reviews, which would have helped improve my performance, if anything. Instead, Mr. Myerberg’s allegations against me were saved up and couched as intentional misconduct, rather than correctible human errors.

“It seems that Mr. Myerberg was carefully scrutinizing my work in order to find any issues at all. He came up with three, and only one that is significant. Given that I performed upwards of 1,100 classification and investigation case reviews, that is an error rate of .003 % (and that figure is rounded up),” Lippek continues. “I do not believe there is any office where a worker who performs without error 99.997% of the time would be considered a failure.”

Lippek closes by noting that during her time at OIG, not only did she never receive any negative feedback on the quality of her case reviews, she was given a merit raise and “several” extra days off as a reward for merit. Additionally, “a significant portion of my work was thoroughly reviewed by the OIG policy team, and they found that I was thorough, helpful, and didn’t miss deadlines. I was terminated for making a very small number of human mistakes in a very high pressure situation.”

It is unclear why the OIG chose to handle similar concerns regarding the work of two auditors — Lippek and Finnell — in such a starkly disparate manner, especially given the evidence presented in each case. 

The Emerald has reached out to Judge and Lippek for comment.

The Emerald will be revisiting several issues raised here in forthcoming articles.

Carolyn Bick is a local journalist and photographer. As the Emerald’s Watchdragon reporter, they dive deep into local issues to keep the public informed and ensure those in positions of power are held accountable for their actions. You can reach them here and can check out their work here and here.

📸 Featured Image: Photo is by Weiss & Paarz ( paarz), under a Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

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