Ballot Pox

King County elections chief Julie Anne Kempf was fired in 2002. Now she could face charges that include criminal impersonation.

On July 16, a few days before she was booked into the King County Jail and released, former King County elections superintendent Julie Anne Kempf was telling a funeral crowd about the funk she was in after her firing in 2002. At the memorial service for Seattle voting activist and cancer victim Andy Stephenson, Kempf indicated that today she considers herself something of a whistle-blower. But back then, her dismissal by the county and subsequent accusations that she had established a "pattern of dishonesty" in administering an election had left her crushed. Essentially, Stephenson saved her life, Kempf told the other mourners. He came to her home and bugged her about election-reform issues. He got her involved again.

Kempf, 40, is now involved another way, and it's not clear what's going on. She was arrested Tuesday, July 19, on investigation of forgery, theft, criminal impersonation, and assault on a police officer; she allegedly tried to hit a King County sheriff's detective with her car. The allegations are linked to the elections office she used to supervise, but not much more is known. She is not commenting, and the case is still in the investigative stage. County officials say that, to avoid a conflict of interest, oversight of the probe has been handed off to the state attorney general's office, which also isn't commenting.

Pursuit of a criminal case against Kempf strikes some as a county attempt to silence a critic, and it's recirculating some bad blood from the 2004 gubernatorial election debacle. King County elections officials are officially silent: "We have no comment," said spokesperson Bobbie Egan. But one elections official said privately, "The claim our office is pushing this is laughable. We have nothing to do with the investigation." Ditto from County Executive Ron Sims' office. "The sheriff and the attorney general, not us, are handling the investigation," says spokesperson Carolyn Duncan, adding that the probe is "not something that's being done frivolously."

It was only in recent months that Kempf had begun to resume a higher media profile, speaking out about the 2004 election. Particularly noteworthy was an April interview with KVI-AM talk-show host Kirby Wilbur. Though she was fired for lying about the cause of November 2002 ballots being mailed late, Kempf told Wilbur: "I had incorrect information that had been passed on to me by some of my staff and vendors. I disseminated that information to the press, believing it was the truth, and a few days later learned it was not correct." She wanted to call a press conference to set the record straight, said Kempf, and approached her boss, Elections Director Bob Roegner. "I was told no, that he and the county executive wanted to sit on the information and just sort of see where it all fell out. Well, of course it became a major crisis, because it gave the appearance that the elections office had consciously lied to the people of King County. And I was the one that was tagged as being a liar . . . and the way to solve the problem was to fire me, and everything would be well." The thing is, Kempf added in the KVI interview, "If you have a problem in King County [government], don't speak about it frankly. Come up with a political solution" instead. Duncan, Sims' spokesperson, responds that Kempf has "established her track record. People will have to make their own judgments."

The county's letter of dismissal described Kempf as displaying "a pattern of dishonesty ranging from fabrication to significant distortion of important facts and events," and a county investigative report accused her of backdating documents and delaying the public release of completed ballot counts. But a 2003 review of the county vote process by Secretary of State Sam Reed supported some of Kempf's contentions that election errors resulted from staff shortages, technical problems, and lack of office communication. The man who fired Kempf, elections director Roegner, resigned a few months later after another vote failure, the late mailing of absentee ballots. Kempf, who dropped a brief challenge to her dismissal, subsequently described herself as the "second-most-famous fired person in King County, after Rick Neuheisel," the ex–University of Washington football coach. She deemed herself a scapegoat for a troubled county elections department—one that proved to be more widely flawed than thought last year with the storm over the state's disputed gubernatorial election. A court challenge this year failed to force a new election between Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi.

The current investigation, according to two county sources, involves allegations that Kempf sent current King County Elections Director Dean Logan an e-mail pretending to be someone else. She also is suspected of inserting false documents into a file of public records while she was reviewing them, allegedly constituting forgery. Sources also say she stopped payment on a check that she had used to pay for the documents, and, during an investigative interview attempt, allegedly tried to hit a sheriff's detective with her car. King County Sheriff's spokesperson John Urquhart says he can't comment in detail on the probe, but confirms the arrest, booking, and car incident. "When we tried to interview her on July 11, she was in a car at her residence," Urquhart says. "The detective had his ID out, showed his badge, and she drove off. He had to jump out of the way to avoid being hit by the vehicle. We have no doubt she saw him."

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