Spokane County building code director resigns after harassment and choking allegations

click to enlarge Spokane County Courthouse - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak Photo
Spokane County Courthouse

Russell Cornell, Spokane County's former building and code enforcement director, resigned from his position in late May over allegations that he choked and harassed county employees.

On May 9, 2019, a female employee in the county's Planning Department reported to the Human Resources Department that Cornell approached her while she was sitting at her desk on May 8 and placed a cord attached to a marker "around her neck and pulled it tight" for a few seconds before removing it, according to internal investigation records obtained by the Inlander. (The employee wasn't a subordinate of Cornell's but both of their departments are housed in the same building.) This move "choked" the employee and "caused her to be pulled back in her chair," the complainant told human resources staff.

The employee then turned around in her chair and Cornell had the marker in his hand and stated something to the effect that he was trying to give her "eye shadow or eye liner," according to the internal investigation. She said that she was in shock and turned back to her computer before Cornell left the area. A co-worker sitting near the employee witnessed the incident and confirmed her narrative to human resources staff.

"She was uncomfortable remaining in the building and being at her work station" following the incident, the internal investigation reads, going on to note that the employee felt "uncomfortable and jittery" coming into work and had scheduled an appointment with her therapist.

Cornell was promoted to building and code enforcement director in October 2018 after working for the department as a building code administrator since 2014. Prior to that he worked for the city of Missoula and the city of Lake Stevens.

This wasn't the first altercation involving Cornell. The same complainant who was choked also told human resources that Cornell had, in recent months, "tweaked" her ear with his fingers. Additionally, Cornell also allegedly touched the ear of another female employee and blew onto her hair and neck from from behind. (Witnesses corroborated the ear tweaking incidents, per the investigation.)

When interviewed by human resources staff, Cornell said that he didn't remember looping the cord around the female employee's neck but acknowledged picking up the marker and telling her that he was going to "put some mascara on her." He said that he didn't "recall" flicking female employees' ears or blowing into one individual's hair.

But when pressed by interviewers from human resources about why he could remember other details from the incident and not whether he wrapped a cord around the employee's neck, and after being told there was a witness, Cornell replied "If it's true, it's true," according to the investigation report.

"If you have two [people] that say I did, how do I prove I didn't?" Cornell said during the interview, per records.

Attempts to reach Cornell for comment were unsuccessful.

The Human Resources Department internal investigation found that there was "sufficient evidence" to sustain all of the allegations. As such, an employment separation agreement was agreed to and signed by both Cornell and Spokane County Chief Executive Officer Gerry Gimmell. Cornell resigned on May 31 and agreed not to file claims for damages with the county while the county agreed to pay him out through one more pay period, as well as remove his termination notice from his personnel file and to not contest Cornell's petition for unemployment with the state Employment Security Department.

"There's behaviors that are unacceptable and we owe it to our employees to have a safe and professional place for them to work," Gimmell tells the Inlander. "I took the report very seriously."

As for the conditions to not contest his unemployment application and clearing his personnel file of a termination notice, Gimmell says that the agreement was in the "best interest" of the county.

"Keep in mind that he disputed the allegations," he says. "Based on the information that I had in the investigation report, the separation agreement seemed like the best thing to do."

"I hadn’t heard anything prior to the complaint," Gimmell says regarding Cornell's tenure with the county. "I had no concern over the quality of his work."

John Pederson, the current director of the county Planning Department, is serving as interim director of the Building Department given Cornell's departure while the county explores merging the two departments under one director, Gimmell says.