The fraud investigation into Cowlitz County Coroner Tim Davidson’s personal travel reimbursements was sparked by an employee tip in 2018, the county said Friday.
According to the Washington State Auditor Office investigation released Thursday, between February 10, 2016, and May 10, 2019, Davidson personally was reimbursed $12,602.71 related to travel expenses from two organizations, even though the county had paid for his travel.
The Washington State Patrol has a criminal investigation open. The state auditor’s office said it has referred the case to the Cowlitz County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
Ryan Jurvakainen, Cowlitz Prosecuting Attorney, said his office will wait for the WSP report to be complete and then have an outside prosecuting office review both reports to determine if there will be charges filed.
Davidson declined to comment on the allegations.
“While disappointed in the length of time it has taken to receive the results of the (state auditor's office) fraud investigation, we are confident in the integrity of the results and recommendations made in the report,” the Cowlitz County sheriff’s office is quoted in a press release.
In 2018, county staff suspected Davidson was submitting reimbursement requests to the Washington Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners for travel expenses paid by the county and not depositing the reimbursements with the county to repay the public funds.
County Chief of Staff Axel Swanson said an employee came forward in 2018 with the information, just as the county was starting an accountability audit with the state auditor’s office. The county then explained the allegations to the state office and asked for its help.
Because the allegations involved possible criminal activity, Swanson said the county worked with the state auditor and the sheriff’s office. In August 2019, the investigation was turned over to the special unit of the state auditor's office and the WSP.
At the time, Davidson served as president of the Washington Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners and traveled to trainings, conferences and for legislative meetings. He also attended International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners conferences and performed accreditation audits on behalf of the association.
According to the report, both associations reimburse individuals for incurred travel expenses if they complete a reimbursement request form and submit copies of their receipts.
Davidson was reimbursed about $7,800 by WACME and about $4,700 by IACME, according to the report. About $100 of county-paid airfare expenses also were found not legitimate county business because they related to an IACME accreditation audit of Ada County, Idaho, the report said.
After opening the investigation in August 2019, and requesting travel expense reimbursement documentation from the two associations, Davidson made two personal cash deposits back to WACME totaling $14,300 for travel expense reimbursements he had received from them, according to the report.
On Dec. 15, 2020, the auditor’s office interviewed Davidson, who “acknowledged personally receiving reimbursement funds from the WACME and IACME associations for county-paid travel expenses.” He offered to repay the county with personal funds, according to the report.
The auditor’s report recommend the county seek recovery of the $12,600 and related investigation costs of $21,850 from Davidson or the county’s insurance company.
As the coroner, Davidson is an elected official and the county doesn’t have the legal ability to discipline him, Swanson said. If Davidson were to resign, the county commissioners would be responsible for appointing a replacement.
Because Davidson is responsible for managing his own department’s expenses and budget, it was difficult for the county to track the reimbursements, according to the report.
“The county is disappointed in the elected coroner and deeply concerned with the facts that have emerged out of the investigative process,” according to a prepared statement from the county that also noted the “The county acknowledges and agrees with the opinions and findings" from the state auditor's office, "however, given the weakness in transparency of the coroner’s office, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the county to know the coroner was seeking payment from an outside organization.”
The auditor recommended the county improve its internal controls over the approval of travel expenses by creating a stronger oversight process and by getting a yearly disclosure from elected officials of any outside organization involvement.
The county said in the statement it “would welcome the assistance" of the state auditor's office "in designing a legal, reasonable oversight process that would deter this type of fraud from happening in the future.”
— Reporter Katie Fairbanks contributed to this story.