Public defender resigns after county policy violation

PORT ORCHARD — The top lawyer in Kitsap’s public defender office, found to have violated county policy by carrying on a romantic relationship with another county employee on county property, resigned in April after the county administrator said she wanted to fire him.

Clarke Tibbits, who since 2009 led the office that represents low income people accused of crimes, resigned effective April 10 and will collect about 11 weeks of unused vacation hours. Tibbits made about $124,000 a year.

The investigation by the county Human Resources director started February 11 when a man said he suffered serious psychological damage when, in November, he observed from outside the building Tibbits and his girlfriend, Sheriff’s Office employee Aimee Hancock, kissing in Tibbits’ office. The man said he was waiting for his son to be released from jail and watched the two while he was standing outside Tibbits’ office.

The two were clothed and had the shades drawn, but the man, Terrance Billy, said he was deeply offended by what he saw. Billy filed a claim with the county for $15,000.

Port Orchard Police investigated and Cmdr. Dale Schuster said the inquiry found no crime had been committed.

When questioned by county officials, Tibbits initially said the conduct could not have taken place at the time described, according to documents obtained by the Kitsap Sun. Tibbits later said the conduct had occurred, and said he was caught off guard and embarrassed by the question. He said the shades in his office were drawn at the time of the incident, it was after-hours and he didn’t realize anyone could see inside.

County Administrator Karen Goon wrote that Tibbits was “not forthcoming and vehemently denied behavior that happened instead of taking responsibility for it.”

“I am very disappointed in your behavior,” Goon wrote. “I and the Board of Commissioners expect the highest level of integrity and conduct from our executive level employees and especially from a position which is so critical to the public we serve.“

Human Resources Director Steve McLain’s investigation found Tibbits and Hancock had kissed and had other contact that was deemed offensive while in Tibbits’ office on Nov. 14, and used county computers to communicate with each other. Hancock works as administrative support in the jail, a separate department from the public defender’s office. The investigation also alleged Tibbits had gone to dinner with Hancock after work hours, drank wine, then Tibbits returned to his office in the evening to continue working. Tibbits denied that he ever drank and returned to work at his office.

Tibbits told the Sun he had always received positive employment evaluations and that he took pride in his work representing people who could not afford to hire a lawyer.

“While I regret using county facilities for personal reasons, I do not believe any of the allegations which concerned the county did anything to undermine the quality of my work, nor did they merit my termination,” Tibbits wrote in a statement to the Sun.

No other misconduct was alleged in documents, and no comment was made on the quality of Tibbits’ work. Tibbits was an “at will” employee.

Sheriff Gary Simpson said the Sheriff’s Office investigation into Hancock was still underway and supervisors would deal with discipline.

“I will speculate that I don’t see this being a terminable offense,” Simpson said.

Billy, of Silverdale, told the Sun that when he realized what he was watching the evening of Nov. 14 he continued to watch for a length of time.

Billy said he was offended by what he saw and it made him lose faith in county government.

In his claim for damages he filed with the county April 2, asking for $15,000, Billy said he sustained post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, migraine headaches, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and lightheadedness.

The claim was denied by the county, which found it had no liability, according to county Risk Manager Tim Perez.

Tibbits, first licensed in 1994, was hired to be the supervisor of Kitsap County Public Defense in the summer 2009. He moved from Wenatchee, where he was a partner in a private practice firm.