5 troopers accused in fake diploma case sue WSP, claim defamation

5 troopers accused in fake diploma case sue WSP, claim defamation
Top row, from left: Gabriel Olson, Dan Mann and Brian Ensley. Bottom row, from left: Dennis Tardiff and Spike Unruh.
SEATTLE -- Five of the state troopers accused of buying fake diplomas for pay raises have sued the Washington Patrol, alleging defamation.

Dennis Tardiff, Spike Unruh, Gabriel Olson, Daniel Mann and Bryan Ensley filed a complaint for damages in King County Superior Court this month. The plaintiffs, who are five of the eight troopers who were suspended last year, allege their diplomas met the agency's standards for a pay increase.

The State Patrol launched an investigation in 2008 after federal agents shut down a diploma mill in Spokane that had awarded thousands of fake diplomas.

Troopers can boost their pay significantly with college diplomas - a 2-percent increase for a two-year degree and a 4-percent hike for a four-year degree.

The agency later said the troopers did not receive their degrees from the Spokane operation, and the Thurston County Prosecutor's Office decided not to file any charges in the case after investigating.

The State Patrol initially said the accused troopers, who were placed on leave during the investigation, would be fired, but later decided to suspend them for three to 10 days instead.

Mann earned his degree at the University of Berkeley, and the remaining four troopers received their degrees at the University of Alameda. Both schools are described as "an online institution offering degrees for 'life experience,"' according to the suit.

All five degrees meet the standards for pay incentives as established by the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the State Patrol and the WSP Troopers Association, the complaint said.

According to the complaint, WSP's only formal requirement for a pay increase was an associate or bachelor degree from an "accredited" institution. However, the agency "did not define what type of accreditation was required or state who must accredit the institution," the document said.

Alameda is accredited by the Association for the Online Academic Excellence, Interfaith Education Ministries and the Council for Distance Education Accreditation, the suit said, and Berkeley is accredited by the New-Millennium Accrediting Partnership for Educators Worldwide.

The complaint sites a July 2008 e-mail written by WSP Capt. (Marc) Lamoreaux, who said, "WSP has no real standard in placing regard what type of accreditation" is required, and recommended that the agency specify the standards to require accreditation by the Council for Higher Education or the United States Department of Education.

On Friday, WSP said it is standing by the decisions made in the case.

"This case was thoroughly investigated, carefully considered. And we believe the discipline was appropriate," said WSP spokesman Bob Calkins.

The plaintiffs also allege the State Patrol broke the terms of their bargaining agreement by releasing their names and photos to the media before their internal investigation was through.

By doing so, WSP failed to follow procedures that require "that the employee would be notified of the public disclosure request and given five business days to object to release of the requested document," the complaint said. "Therefore, the WSP is liable to the plaintiffs for public disclosure of private facts."

By making false allegations, then making the plaintiffs' names and photos public, the WSP defamed the troopers, according to the suit.

The complaint also quotes a comment Calkins reportedly made to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in regards to the troopers' leave.

"We understand that it can seem odd that you would pay someone that is charged with a crime," Calkins reportedly said. The comment shows malice on the agency's part, the suit alleges.

"The WSP was aware that the plaintiffs had never been charged with a crime, as it was the only one conducting the investigation, and therefore knew of or recklessly disregarded the falsity of the statement," the complaint said.

Further, the agency "placed the plaintiffs in a false light" by clustering them with the diploma mills discovered in Spokane even though they'd earned their diplomas from institutions that were accredited and remain in operation unlike the now shut-down diploma mills.

"It was extreme and outrageous conduct by the WSP to repeatedly approve of the plaintiff's diplomas, which met the agency's ambiguous standard of merely being accredited, and then start a ten-month investigation of the plaintiffs, releasing their names and photos to the media," the complaint said, adding the troopers were "particularly susceptible to emotional stress" since WSP is their employer.

"The WSP inflicted the emotional distress intentionally or recklessly," said the suit, which is seeking damages for harm to reputation, severe emotional distress and mental anguish as we as invasion of privacy.