Deputy questions Kent Police role in probe

It turned their lives upside down and continues to burn Andy and Laura Conner. How the Kent Police Department gave an unsubstantiated accusation to the King County Sheriff's Office about Andy's alleged misuse of a nonprofit agency's funds.

Andy Conner

Andy Conner

It turned their lives upside down and continues to burn Andy and Laura Conner.

How the Kent Police Department gave an unsubstantiated accusation to the King County Sheriff’s Office about Andy’s alleged misuse of a nonprofit agency’s funds.

“For six months, they ripped my husband’s life apart,” Laura Conner said of the 2013 investigation by the Sheriff’s Office, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office into the deputy and The Genesis Project, a SeaTac drop-in center that helps get girls and women out of sex trafficking by getting them into school or finding them a job.

Despite allegations that he had embezzled as much as $50,000 from the more than $300,000 raised, an investigation failed to find that Conner had taken any money from the program.

“Because the allegations of criminal conduct by Conner were not substantiated, we are declining prosecution of this matter,” read a Sept. 25, 2013, letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office to the FBI and the Sheriff’s Office electronics crimes task force.

But that has not ended the challenges for the Conners, who are trying to rebuild the program’s reputation as they continue to get back donors. Many donors left because of the 2013 investigation of Conner, which an inside source had leaked to King 5 television news about one month after it started.

“We’re gaining slowly but surely, but anyone who knows about (the investigation) still has questions,” Andy Conner said during an interview last week at the drop-in center just off of SeaTac’s International Boulevard, also known as Pacific Highway South. “This was unfounded and a complete lie. …I  don’t get a dime from doing this.”

The center has two full-time employees, two half-time workers, interns and volunteers. A five-member board, including Andy Conner, oversees operations. The program raised $60,000 at its annual dinner/auction fundraiser in December.

The Conners, who live in Kent, want people to know about their story because of how a simple allegation can upend a life, whether there’s any truth to the claim or not.

And they want to know why the Kent Police handled the accusation as it did.

In fact, Laura Conner met with Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke to ask her to look into the way Kent Police addressed the issue. Conner gave the mayor numerous documents that the Conners obtained through public disclosure requests form the Sheriff’s Office investigation. That’s how the couple found out Kent Police initiated the whole thing.

“She (Laura Conner) asked me to look into this,” Cooke said this week. “I made a commitment to look into the facts.”

Cooke said she plans to have the City Attorney’s Office investigate the case to see if Kent Police handled it properly. She expects the investigation to be completed within the next couple of months.

Cooke first visited The Genesis Project a few years ago and remains a strong supporter of the program.

“My observation of The Genesis Project is that it serves a real positive niche in our community with the way the organization and the volunteers are set up to empower women to take their lives back through education and jobs,” Cooke said. “I was very impressed. I support it and am engaged in promoting it. I’m glad it exists.”

The background

Andy Conner started The Genesis Project in August of 2011. A former University of Oregon football player, Conner has worked 17 years as a Sheriff’s Office deputy. He works in the city of SeaTac, which contracts with the Sheriff’s Office for police services.

For many years Conner has worked prostitution crimes along International Boulevard. After arresting several girls over and over for prostitution, he wanted to find a way to help them get out of sex trafficking.

Police officers and sheriff’s deputies (prior to the 2013 investigation) bring the girls and women directly to the drop-in center. Things started slowly with respect to donations but picked up in 2012 after the release of a film documentary called “Rape for Profit,” which looked at the sex trade and included The Genesis Project as part of its focus. The center has helped more than 150 girls since it opened. Many of them are no longer involved in prostitution.

Sheriff’s Office detectives Brian Taylor and Joel Banks initially served on the board of The Genesis Project along with Andy Conner. The three had known each other for more than a dozen years.

But Andy Conner said turmoil began around March 2013 when Sarah Johnson, a volunteer and later a paid education and fundraising director for The Genesis Project, had a run-in with Laura Conner, a volunteer for the program, over personal issues. The other board members supported Johnson and wanted Laura Conner out.

Andy Conner said he supported his wife and would not ask her to step down. He said Taylor and Banks also had brought in an outside consultant, who Conner says later tried to take over The Genesis Project.

“This is why everything happened,” Andy Conner said about resignations by Johnson, Banks and Taylor. “It was never over financial issues. That’s what I told FBI and everyone else but they didn’t want to believe it until they actually found out I was telling the truth.”

The accusation

Sarah Johnson, now known as Sarah Cassell, said she didn’t go to the Kent Police or the Sheriff’s Office with accusations of funds embezzled from The Genesis Project.

“I did not personally initiate any official report to Kent Police or KCSO (King County Sheriff’s Office) and have not directly accused Andy of theft,” Johnson said in an email to the Kent Reporter.

Johnson said she had a casual conversation with her then-husband, Jeremiah Johnson, a Kent Police officer, about Conner’s many ATM cash withdrawals.

“My understanding is that my ex-husband told his supervisor about our conversation (without my knowledge), and his supervisor felt like he had an obligation to report it to their chief of police, who then felt like Sheriff (John) Urquhart needed to be aware of the situation,” Johnson said.

Kent Police Chief Ken Thomas said he called Urquhart as soon as he heard from a commanding officer that Conner might be taking money from The Genesis Project.

“This was an allegation of misconduct involving a police officer, so the very day I received this information I called Sheriff Urquhart and let him know I didn’t have any specifics but to notify him there were allegations of misconduct by one of his officers,” Thomas said during an interview with the Kent Reporter about how he handled the accusation.

Kent Police officer Jeremiah Johnson said his wife first talked to him about numerous cash withdrawals from The Genesis Project bank account three or four months before Thomas called Urquhart about a possible misuse of funds, according to statements by Kent Police officers to the Sheriff’s Office investigators in documents obtained by the Conners through the Public Disclosure Act.

Jeremiah Johnson said he would update his sergeant, Todd Durham, so that “as updates came in from Sarah when I would come into work I would share those with Todd.”

Durham told investigators they waited to pass information up the Kent Police chain of command because they wanted to see if The Genesis Project board would do anything about the possible misuse of funds.

“Jeremiah and I would probably talk anywhere from maybe one to two three times per week about the specific problem,” Durham said, according to the investigators report. “Just, you know, maybe it could be a two-minute thing here. or it could be a 10- or 15-minute conversation. Our hope — that would be Jeremiah’s and my hope along with Sarah’s —  was that The Genesis Project board would be able to go ahead and solve their problems, figure out exactly what was going on, either through audits or restructuring of power on the board and kind of regain their original intent. So we were giving them a chance to see if they could figure things out.”

Thomas said he didn’t know when his officers first heard about any misuse of funds.

“I’m not aware of the specifics of time frame,” Thomas said in his interview with the Kent Reporter. “I am aware the ex-wife of one of our police officers served as a board member (Johnson was an employee not a board member) on Genesis Project and in her position felt there was some problems with how the money was being utilized or tracked, and she provided that information to her ex-husband, who is a police officer, who then provided that to his supervisor who went to his commander who brought it to me. It went up the chain of command as any complaint should, and it was addressed.”

Durham told investigators that when it became apparent that the Genesis board hadn’t done anything, he decided it was time to report the possible embezzlement to his commander, Eric Hemmen. Before going to the chief, Durham contacted the Washington State Patrol (WSP) to solicit its help as an outside agency, but a State Patrol sergeant told him the WSP would need a formal request from King County to begin such an investigation. The officers then went to Thomas with what they knew.

The call

Thomas said he definitely took the right step when he called Urquhart about the possible embezzlement.

“If a citizen came in and said a Kent Police officer stole money from me, that would be enough for me to generate an investigation and look into it,” Thomas said. “In this case, (where) a person with Genesis Project said a police officer was inappropriately spending money that was donated by citizens to the Genesis Project to help prostitutes get off the street, that would be enough for me to generate an investigation, so I referred it to the sheriff who felt it was appropriate to investigate.”

Andy Conner thinks the Kent Police improperly handled the passed-on accusation.

“My problem with Kent is why are you the complainant?” Conner said. “She (Johnson) creates allegations of financial whatever; they believe criminal activity. None of these guys do anything to verify what she’s saying, and she’s not really saying anything, she’s insinuating.

“If someone came to me and said they think Puyallup Police (or any other police agency) are doing something wrong, go there and report it. No one verified anything or asked anything. They took her word for it and it went through the chain and Ken Thomas called Urquhart.”

Thomas said he would make the same call again.

“I feel the public would have less confidence in me as a chief for not taking that information forward and having it investigated than they would for me to immediately be notified of official misconduct or wrongdoing and bringing that to the attention of the chief executive of that department to have it investigated,” Thomas said.

“If in policing we are about public trust, transparency and legitimacy, I am confident there is not a police chief in this county who would not have done the same thing.”

Andy Conner disputes that rationale.

“I understand how he can distance himself from this stuff,” Conner said. “But the fact is he can say all of that and it sounds logical, but I can’t understand (him), as chief of police, complaining against me of embezzling. I would think he would want some evidence.”

Conner said the fact that the information came from the Kent Police chief gave the accusation way more validity than it would have had had it had come from a citizen who showed up to lodge a complaint.

Urquhart started an investigation of Conner the morning after Thomas called him.

“We started an internal investigation based on the information he provided us,” Urquhart said last week in a phone interview.

Urquhart said Thomas made the right move.

“Absolutely,” he said. “It was the appropriate thing to do. It was allegations against our employee.”

Urquhart placed Conner on administrative duties until the investigation was completed, without any criminal findings. But because the letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office indicated inadequate financial controls and poor workplace management, the sheriff said he no longer allows officers to take girls to The Genesis Project.

“We don’t make referrals to The Genesis Project,” he said. “There are other centers out there we use. We made the change when the allegations were made. At this point, we use other agencies, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.”

Kent Police also used to take girls to the program, but no longer, Conner said. Thomas said he’s not aware of any officers who take girls to The Genesis Project but said there is no set policy against it.

Prior to the investigation of Conner, Thomas said he had attended fundraisers for The Genesis Project and personally donated money to the program.

“Since information was brought to my attention, I have personally not gone to those events any longer because the integrity of the donations after they had been given was called into question, so I chose to go to other places where the integrity was not called into question,” Thomas said.

Andy Conner wishes Urquhart and Thomas would change their stances.

“If you look at this from an unbiased point of view, there’s no reason you would want to punish victims of trafficking because you have an issue with the person who runs it,” Conner said.

Police officers from Normandy Park, Tukwila, Des Moines and Auburn still bring girls to the center, Conner said.

Conner wants people to be clear on this: no criminal charges were filed against him.

“It happens,” he said of those who have stolen funds from nonprofit agencies. “It also happens where people are falsely accused.”

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