SPOKANE COUNTY, Wash. — A preliminary investigation conducted at the behest of the Washington State Board of Health found evidence that Spokane Regional Health District Administrator Amelia Clark may have violated state law when she ousted former county health officer Dr. Bob Lutz in fall of 2020.
The findings are only the latest development in a months-long saga that began with a tumultuous press conference in October, culminated in a public meeting in which the SRHD board fired Lutz, and continued when Spokane citizens complained to the state board of health about Clark's conduct.
The final recommendations section of the report concludes by saying:
"These facts support a preliminary finding that Ms. Clark removed Dr. Lutz as the Local Health Officer. Further, since Dr. Lutz was not given notice and an opportunity to be heard before the SRHD Board prior to his removal, the facts support a preliminary finding that Ms. Clark refused or neglected to obey or enforce RCW 70.05.050’s requirement that “the local health officer shall not be removed until after notice is given, and an opportunity for a hearing before the board or official responsible for his or her appointment under this section as to the reason for his or her removal.”
The report is not a final or binding determination of any kind. What happens next is up to the state board of health, which Lutz actually sits on, though he was not a participant in the board's previous discussions or votes about this matter.
The board is scheduled to review the findings and take possible action in a virtual special meeting on May 27.
The investigation was conducted by law firm Ogden Murphy Wallace, hired by the state board following a unanimous vote to look into the controversy further and determine whether laws were violated. Investigators reviewed public statements, press releases, press conferences, emails, and texts, and interviewed several key people.
Investigators indicate they were at times stifled by SRHD lawyers, who asserted various confidentiality privileges. Some emails could not be reviewed nor their contents discussed because of assertions of attorney-client privilege, and the content of some key meetings could not be discussed because the content was discussed in executive session regarding an employee.
On October 29, Lutz met with Clark; SRHD board chair and Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick was also present at this meeting. On November 5, the SRHD board formally decided in an 8-4 vote to fire Lutz, and then unanimously appointed Dr. Frank Velazquez as acting health officer.
The central question: what was Lutz's status in between those two dates?
If Clark removed Lutz as health officer on October 29, without a public vote of the board, that could be a violation of state law, which says such a vote is required to remove a health officer.
Lutz told investigators what he had previously suggested in public statements: that Clark on no uncertain terms terminated him in that meeting.
"She discussed other things that she found fault with and said, 'You're terminated, effective immediately,'" the report says Lutz told investigators. "It took him by surprise, and he tried to respond. She said, 'Effective immediately.' She said, 'Here's a severance package' and he said that he would take it to read it. She said that it needed to be on her desk at 4:00 p.m. on Friday. She said, 'You need to leave all your office items here,' referring to his key and computer and cell phone and badges, and that he would have to contact HR to get the rest of his belongings, to get his office cleared out."
Clark recounted a very different version of events.
"Ms. Clark stated that she started going through the performance issues with Dr. Lutz, and he either would not speak or kept repeating, 'I stand by my actions,'" the report reads. "She asked Dr. Lutz to resign and to let her know by 4:00 on October 30 if he would resign. She stated that he didn't really respond. She stated that she gave him an opportunity to respond, but he was just sitting there. When asked if she said anything about terminating his position, she stated that she told him that if he didn't resign, she would go forward and request approval of termination. Ms. Clark stated that she doesn't think she said anything that would cause Dr. Lutz to believe he was terminated in the meeting."
The only other person in the room, Wick, reported something sort of in between.
"Dr. Lutz was told about his status was that his resignation was requested and that he was – Mr. Wick remembers it was a suspension, but he can't remember if that was right. Mr. Wick stated that it was a suspension or probation," the report reads.
Two other people were interviewed about that meeting: SRHD board member and Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, and Lyndia Wilson, an SRHD division director. They were interviewed because of discussions they had shortly after the October 29 meeting. Both seemed to more closely support Lutz's version of events.
"Mr. Beggs stated that he wanted to be clear what the status was – he asked and Ms. Clark said, 'he's been terminated,'" the report states.
"Ms. Wilson stated that it was her understanding that letting Dr. Lutz go was effective immediately and he was escorted out of the building," it also reads.
Furthermore, it was undisputed that following the meeting, Lutz's access to SRHD systems was revoked. Therefore, the preliminary investigation found Lutz was effectively terminated.
"After weighing the evidence, the facts set forth above support a preliminary finding that on October 29, 2020, Dr. Lutz was told by Ms. Clark that he was terminated effective immediately, and that he was given until 4:00 p.m. on October 30th to let Ms. Clark know if he wanted to convert his termination to a resignation," the report states.
The days after
Clark has since claimed that Lutz was not fully terminated as health officer, but rather placed on administrative leave pending his possible resignation or a board hearing to review her recommendation that he be fired.
SRHD staff interviewed said it would in fact be normal procedure for someone on administrative leave to have their access to district systems revoked, according to the report.
Furthermore, Lutz was in fact paid through November 5, the day of his formal firing by the board, the investigation found.
However, SRHD's Human Resources Director Lydia Winters told investigators Clark made the decision to place Lutz on administrative leave retroactively, several days after the initial meeting.
"In her investigation interview, Ms. Winters stated that in the phone call, Ms. Clark said to place Dr. Lutz on administrative leave effective October 30th, until further notice," the report says. "Ms. Winters stated that she did not have any discussion with Ms. Clark or anyone else about placing Dr. Lutz on administrative leave before November 2."
Reviewing all the evidence, the preliminary investigation found that the retroactive leave didn't change the fact that Lutz was effectively terminated by Clark on October 29.
"There is also a preponderance of evidence that, prior to November 2, 2020, Dr. Lutz was not told he was going to be placed on paid administrative leave, including Dr. Lutz’s statement that he did not find out prior to November 2, 2020 that he was placed on paid administrative leave, and Ms. Clark’s statement that she did not tell Dr. Lutz that he would be placed on paid administrative leave," the report states. "Therefore, Ms. Clark’s retroactive placement of Dr. Lutz on paid administrative leave until his employment was terminated by the SRHD Board on November 5, 2020 did not change the fact that she removed him from his position as Local Health Officer on October 29, 2020."
What happens next
Having found in their preliminary investigation that Lutz was in fact terminated as health officer before he could have an opportunity for a public hearing and vote of the board, the investigators submitted their report to the state board of health.
Potential next steps vary widely. That board could decide Clark didn't violate the law and close the matter, could ask for more information before making a decision, or call a hearing to decide whether Clark did in fact violate the law and subsequently decide whether she ought to be removed from her job.
The board could also essentially make up some other resolution, the report concludes.
Lutz declined to comment for this story. KREM also requested comment from Clark and SRHD; a spokesperson said all questions must go through the SRHD lawyer, who did not respond to emails or calls from KREM. A spokesperson for the state board of health also declined to comment.
On Wednesday, the current chair of the SRHD board Mary Kuney released a statement reading in part "Dr. Lutz could not have been terminated on October 29, because he continued to receive his full pay and benefits until termination by the SRHD Board on November 5, 2020. He was placed on administrative leave."
That of course contradicts the findings of the investigation, which concluded the evidence suggests the leave was retroactive, and Lutz was in fact terminated.