Former port employee details allegations; PDN looks into trail of comments posted on website

Daniel Binswanger

PORT ANGELES — A former Port of Port Angeles employee who was fired for insubordination and unsatisfactory performance claims the port violated the terms of a federal grant that supported the creation of the Composite Recycling Technology Center.

Daniel Binswanger recently wrote in some of a series of nine comments on a Peninsula Daily News story online that the port violated the terms of a $2 million U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration grant by not charging the CRTC fair market rent.

Karen Goschen, port executive director, said the negotiated lease rate is within the reasonable range of fair market value.

Whether Binswanger — who was hired as the port’s director of business development in September 2016 and fired effective Feb. 1 — would file a whistleblower complaint was contingent on whether he could keep his job, he wrote after being placed on administrative leave in January.

“If it is in fact [Goschen’s] intentions to terminate me, I herby [sic] inform you, I would like to immediately initiate a whistleblower complaint against Ms. Goschen and the Port of Port Angeles,” Binswanger wrote Jan. 24.

“On the other hand, if Ms. Goschen and the Port of Port Angeles are willing to immediately retract the paid administrative action leave it has taken against me and to immediately agree to reconcile our differences, I will retract my whistleblower action against Ms. Goschen and the Port.”

Binswanger wrote online on the PDN website: “While working at the Port, among other things, I was tasked with oversight of the Port’s business with the CRTC including working toward a long-term lease with the CRTC that would meet EDA approval.

”During this work, I discovered Port Executive Director Karen Goschen had executed a Memorandum of Understanding that committed the Port to a ten year lease with the CRTC at a rental rate below fair market value.”

The CRTC is on a month-to-month lease and its base rent is $8,985.60 per month, with the first two years of rent distributed across years three through 10. The memorandum of understanding will be superseded by a long-term lease once the lease is signed and the rental terms are approved by the EDA.

A December appraisal by Halberg Pacific Appraisal Service found that fair market rent would be $9,620 per month.

Halberg made an addendum to the appraisal in March — after Binswanger was fired — stating that “the difficulty of this appraisal assignment is the lack of similar local properties that have been rented in an open and competitive market” and that “a range of plus or minus 20 percent is reasonable.”

That $9,620 would be the midpoint of that range. The current rent is within 7 percent of the midpoint.

Binswanger said the port should have done an appraisal before setting the CRTC’s rent.

Goschen said the lease terms can be changed if the EDA requires any changes.

In a letter to the EDA, Goschen wrote there was a $634.40-per-month difference between the initial appraisal and what the CRTC is charged and that because of the 20 percent range, the “negotiated lease rate with CRTC is therefore within the reasonable range of fair market rent.”

To date, the port has received a bulk of the $2 million reimbursable grant and is awaiting $868,942.64.

“The delay in receiving the cash is due to the time needed for the EDA to review our leases and appraisals to ensure we are receiving fair market value rent for the building they helped pay for,” said John Nutter, director of administration and finance, in an email.

“All documentation has been provided to the EDA and we are waiting for their legal review and approval which I expect to happen soon.”

Nutter said delays are common and that any claim otherwise is incorrect.

Binswanger has said Port Commissioner Steve Burke said during a meeting Jan. 9 that the port could play a “shell game” with money related to what Binswanger determined to be a $79,000 financial discrepancy.

Burke on Wednesday said he doesn’t recall ever using those words.

“I have no idea where that came from,” he said. Burke said he “probably had two conversations with [Binswanger] when he worked here.”

He said commissioners are not involved with personnel issues and he had little knowledge about “anything related to that issue.”

Nutter and Goschen both recalled Burke saying the words “shell game” but understood it to mean diverting funds from the general fund as an enterprise accounting strategy, according to documents from the Office of Administrative Hearings.

Binswanger said that was “absurd.”

After he was fired, Binswanger requested a hearing before a judge from the state Office of Administrative Hearings to determine whether his firing was in retaliation to his whistleblower complaint.

Administrative Law Judge Lisa Dublin determined that the port did not retaliate against Binswanger.

She wrote that Binswanger’s verbal whistleblower report Jan. 23 was “insufficiently hypothetical.” He was placed on administrative leave that evening.

Dublin determined that Binswanger “effectuated” his whistleblower complaint Jan. 24 in his email, providing a clear statement that he wanted to immediately initiate his whistleblower complaint.

“However … Mr. Binswanger was already on paid administrative leave pending a decision regarding discharge due to insubordination and unsatisfactory job performance,” Dublin wrote. “As is well-documented … Mr. Binswanger repeatedly undermined Ms. Goschen and improperly challenged her authority of him in the performance of his job duties.”

Dublin wrote that Binswanger took no responsibility for his insubordinate conduct and did not discuss his whistleblower claim during his Loudermill hearing.

Binswanger has filed a petition for judicial review in Thurston County Superior Court, claiming Dublin “grossly misinterpreted [state law] and that she also ignored, excused, justified and/or overlooked a substantial amount of testimony and evidence admitted during the hearing she presided over.”

He is requesting to be reinstated with back pay and relief of up to $250,000 for the time he spent defending himself.

Or, if the court determines conditions at the port are unreasonable for Binswanger to return to, he would like five years of back pay and $250,000 for the time he spent defending himself.

“The only thing I wouldn’t do is cover up Karen’s mistake and do a shell game to cover it up,” he said. “I have never been accused of anything — or fired — in my life until now.”

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Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at jmajor@peninsuladailynews.com.