Tiffany Atwood had a pretty sweet assignment at the King County Sheriff's Office. As a "background detective," her job was to visit police departments around the country and evaluate prospective officers the sheriff was considering hiring. She was supposed to go on ride-alongs with those officers, review their files, and interview their colleagues.
Instead, an internal investigation by the King County Sheriff's Office found, she lived it up on the taxpayers' dime. During trips to Hawaii, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Oregon, Atwood upgraded her rooms at resorts or her rental cars far beyond what was allowed by King County regulations. On several trips, she took her son with her to hotel pools and beaches and went sightseeing.
During a two-day trip to Maui, she spent $549 per night on a room at the Fairmont Maui, including $116 for an "ocean view upgrade"—more than double the authorized per diem rate of $259 per night. She spent $150 for a rental car upgrade with Hertz, against King County policy.
After at least two years of this kind of activity, and at least $7,500 wasted, people began asking questions.
The sheriff's finance division noticed Atwood booked an unusually expensive room at the Disney Resort Aulani on Oahu in March of 2016. The hotel was on the opposite side of the island from where she needed to conduct the background check.
An exhaustive investigation, led by a fellow detective, began. Investigators checked the time stamps on her cell phone and iPad photos against her statements about when she was working. What emerged, according to county files, was a "clear pattern of fraud and deception."
In several cases, she never spoke with the officers whose background she was supposed to check.
In the Maui case, investigators later found "numerous recreational type photos throughout the day, during and after work hours, at the pool and the beach" on her work phone. Atwood had claimed she was working overtime. But she never submitted the paperwork needed to review the Maui Police Department's files on the officer whose background she was supposed to check. She hadn't bothered to do her job.
After working in the sheriff department's background unit since 2011, Atwood was fired on October 10, 2016, for criminal conduct. The sheriff's investigation substantiated allegations of conduct unbecoming an officer, making false and fraudulent statements, and insubordination (for leaving the region without informing superiors during her stint on paid leave pending investigation).
Atwood also got caught bilking taxpayers in King County when a colleague noticed her conducting traffic in Kenmore, in the middle a workday afternoon, on behalf of a secondary employer. That colleague mentioned it a sergeant, who noted that Atwood had claimed sick leave for the day.
For two hours in August, Detective Mike Mullinax questioned Atwood about her conduct. "When you weren't putting in your eight hours a day at work, what were you doing?" Mullinax asked.
"Um, vacationing I guess," Atwood responded, according to the interview transcripts.
Mullinax asked her, "You're taking that money, so basically you're ending up cheating the county out of that money. Is that true?"
"I guess so."
"Either it's true or it's not."
"Yeah, I guess it's true."
"You went back to guess again."
Pressed by Mullinax about "lying," Atwood also admits she "should have been truthful" when she was first questioned about her spending.
Atwood is alleged to have defrauded the county of at least $7,500 (her lawyer gave a rough estimate of $10,000) over the course of at least 12 trips. Investigators said there could have been additional expenses. And Atwood was found to be engaging in what police call "double-dipping" by working extra jobs while she claimed to be sick.
Atwood's case is further complicated by her own allegations against King County sheriff John Urquhart. Atwood and several other officers claim that Urquhart uses retaliatory tactics against his staff.
Urquhart has said plainly that he won't "tolerate BS" at his department. The sheriff campaigned on a strict no-nonsense approach to police accountability, and he's followed through by cleaning house. Since 2013, he's fired 19 officers, for everything from failure to turn in reports to homophobic text messages to sleeping on duty. Atwood is the latest officer to lose her job.
"I want this process to reflect me and what I think is important," Urquhart told The Stranger last year. "Since I was elected, I get to make the rules."
On September 14, after the investigation had finished, Atwood filed a complaint with the county ombudsman seeking protection as a whistle-blower.
She alleges the sheriff is "targeting" her for retaliation in an effort to discredit her. In 2012, as a background detective, she certified a polygraph test that Chris Barringer, the sheriff's chief of staff, had taken. She signed her name to a memorandum saying Barringer had passed.
The polygraph results came in later. The Seattle police officer who conducted the test noted that Barringer had shown a "significant response" to a question about bribery. "It is my opinion that this matter is unresolved," the officer wrote.
Atwood said she noticed the anomalous result, but conferred with her partner and decided not to do anything about it.
"She ends up putting the polygraph in a file and signs the memo," acknowledged Tim Leary, her attorney. "Which was a mistake in judgment on their part."
When Barringer applied to the state academy to become a sworn officer, however, Atwood began raising issues about the polygraph. Urquhart had Barringer take another polygraph test in 2014, which he passed.
Atwood's complaint does not explain how her handling of the polygraph is connected to the investigation into a pattern of fraud and deception that led to her firing.
"I'm not saying [the investigation] is trumped up and she didn't do things she shouldn't have done," Leary said. "There's a bigger story here. Urquhart has a pattern of using internal investigations to settle scores."
"Of course it's not true," Urquhart responded. "Every investigation is independently investigated by detective sergeants."
If an investigation turns up misconduct, the chain of command certifies the findings. The sheriff doesn't get involved until the hearing where an officer pleads his or her case. Atwood chose to waive her own hearing.
That polygraph is also allegedly a key piece of evidence in another case. Two other officers, Amy Shoblom and Louis Caballero, who were fired last year after they wrongly claimed a black bus driver used profanity against them, are suing the sheriff, alleging Urquhart unfairly retaliated against them. Their attorney, Julie Kays, told the Seattle Times that the polygraph issue "raises questions of integrity, of public trust, of honesty."
The county and the sheriff's office told the Seattle Times that Shoblom and Caballero's suit is "dangling red herring arguments to obfuscate the facts." The King County ombudsman investigated the polygraph rumors in 2015, and effectively dismissed the complaint, noting that "current applicable law does not characterize polygraph results in pass/fail terms."
That case is scheduled to go to trial in January.
As for Atwood, the sheriff's office has forwarded its findings to King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg for a charging decision. A spokesperson for the prosecutor's office said they're still reviewing the case. "We documented what we believe was criminal behavior on the part of Detective Atwood," Urquhart said in a statement.
Which means all that beach and poolside lounging might result in felony charges. Some upgrade.