'Old Boys' Club'?

A GU law student has raised concerns about the culture inside the Spokane County Prosecutor's Office

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell says all interns and new hires attend sexual harassment training. - YOUNG KWAK
Young Kwak
Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell says all interns and new hires attend sexual harassment training.

A Gonzaga University School of Law student stopped showing up for her internship in 2015 with the Spokane County Prosecutor's Office. She began to object to the lawyers offering a running commentary about her looks, rather than her legal skills.

The student reflected in an essay on the experience and her internal struggle with whether to return to the office. The essay, which talked in general about an "old boys' club" culture within the office, mentioned other "inappropriate comments" about her physical appearance.

"I left the office that day feeling angry, minimized and entirely uncomfortable," she writes.

The student declined to be interviewed for this story, but her essay sparked an investigation by Spokane County HR.

Heather Kvokov, the HR generalist who conducted the investigation, did not find enough evidence to support either the claims about the office's internal culture, or the accusations of sexual harassment against a specific deputy prosecutor.

The essay, the HR investigation and a stack of other internal documents were provided to the Inlander in response to a public records request seeking information about the circumstances surrounding former Deputy Prosecutor Joe Kuhlman's resignation. Kuhlman resigned under unexplained circumstances in March; the newly released records made clear his resignation followed accusations of inappropriate and sexually charged behavior in three separate incidents. A fourth complaint — details of which were not included in the records request — came in while HR was investigating the third.

About 175 of the 543 pages generated by the request are redacted. Those pages that are not blacked-out raise questions regarding whether Kuhlman's actions are indicative of the culture within the prosecutor's office.

Kuhlman has been the subject of at least three HR investigations dating back to 2012. According to documents in his personnel file, he was counseled for making a sexually suggestive comment to a woman who advocates on behalf of crime victims.

Kuhlman was standing behind the victims' advocate in her cubicle as the two were about to call a victim to prepare for a potential case, according to the woman's written account of what happened. They chatted about a defendant, whom they both knew but did not like. The woman called the defendant a "dick."

"You know who has a big dick?" Kuhlman responded, according to the woman's statement, pointing to himself.

"Excuse me?" she said.

"This is coming out wrong," she recalls Kuhlman saying.

"Yeah, it is. It is. I'm going to pretend I was somewhere else," she said. "Can we call this victim now?"

Kuhlman was lectured by supervisors about his comment and was told not to contact the woman outside of work, according to a memo dated Feb. 15, 2017.

"Mr. Kuhlman responded that he did not recall the incident but was not calling her a liar," Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Jack Driscoll writes in the memo. "He said this was not his M.O., though he could get crass."

As a part of his resignation, Kuhlman signed an agreement that restricts him from talking about these circumstances, and his attorney did not return requests for comment. Kuhlman did, however, submit a written response, which is included in his personnel file.

"This matter stems from a complaint in 2012 that did not generate a memorandum until February 5th, 2017," Kuhlman writes in response to his sexually suggestive comment. "It was determined ... to be an issue that did not require follow up, discipline or documentation for 5 years until now, at the time of my resignation."

It would be another three years after the incident before the Gonzaga law student would raise concerns about Kuhlman in particular, and the office culture in general.

Two allegations, though, loom large in the student's mind, as she describes in her reflection essay.

The first involves a local attorney who, while the student was in the office, asked her boss where "he keeps finding all of these cute secretaries to come work for him."

"My boss half defended me," the student writes, stating that though her boss pointed out that she was a law student and was not interested in the local attorney's attention, he failed to point out that the comment itself was "entirely inappropriate."

The second involved Kuhlman.

During a court hearing, the student noticed Kuhlman staring at her legs. The student took Kuhlman's gaze as sexual in nature, and later brought it up with her supervisor.

"He dismissed my concern saying something to the extent that it was to be expected with that prosecutor," she writes.

Kuhlman explained to the HR investigator that he was staring at the tattoo on her thigh, but his intent was not to objectify her. Rather, he told her to be careful "with that thigh piece" because some judges would find it inappropriate.

He told HR that prosecutors are expected to dress "conservatively and professionally," and her short skirt that revealed a tattoo was not appropriate for the courtroom.

Sharon Hedlund, a deputy prosecuting attorney who was interviewed for the HR investigation, told HR that she's known Kuhlman and has supervised him for years.

"She has had him work with many interns (both male and female) and has never had any issues," the HR report states. "She would not describe him as flirtatious or approaching women in the office 'in a sexualized way.'"

None of the GU student's allegations — including those regarding an "old boys' club" and sexual harassment — rose to the level of requiring discipline. The HR investigator either could not find enough evidence, or interviews turned up conflicting stories.

Still, the HR investigator recommended that Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell direct his staff to go through a refresher course on sexual harassment in the workplace. Haskell complied.

"All staff attended that training," Haskell writes in response to emailed questions. "At each of the training sessions, I personally emphasized the zero tolerance of this office in regards to sexual harassment." He adds that the student later applied to work at the prosecutor's office, but was not hired.

Shortly after that training, Kuhlman would be the target of a third HR investigation involving a woman who worked in a different county department. In a letter to Haskell, HR director Tim Hansen says he believes the third incident, involving unwanted messages on social media, qualified as sexual harassment.

The HR investigator notes that "in the midst of investigating the current incident, a fourth complaint was received involving another prior intern in the office. Investigation into the fourth complaint is pending."

No details of the fourth complaint, or any investigation, were included in Kuhlman's public personnel file.

Kuhlman resigned in March of this year, but could not offer an explanation, due to the agreement that neither side would speak publicly about the circumstances surrounding his resignation.

But for the student, the issue clearly extended beyond Kuhlman.

"I had enjoyed the work I was doing in the Prosecutor's office, and I do not want them to think that this kind of thing is OK, but I am honestly not sure that even saying something would change the culture [of] that office," she writes. ♦

Dreamworks Animation: The Exhibition — Journey From Sketch to Screen @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 11
  • or

About The Author

Mitch Ryals

Mitch covers cops, crime and courts for the Inlander. He moved to Spokane in 2015 from his hometown of St. Louis, and is a graduate of the University of Missouri. He likes bikes, beer and baseball. And coffee. He dislikes lemon candy, close-mindedness and liars. And temperatures below 40 degrees.