People listen to Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic speak at a news conference May 2 at Yakima City Hall about two audits of the city of Wapato.

Local law enforcement is beginning a criminal investigation of Wapato city government.

The Washington State auditor published an accountability report in early May on city actions from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2018 — a period when City Administrator Juan Orozco was in power.

Orozco was elected mayor in November 2017 and resigned in September 2018. Councilwoman Dora Alvarez-Roa was appointed mayor and immediately appointed Orozco as city administrator, a new position, for $95,000 a year.

The report contained eight findings that state Auditor Pat Mc-

Carthy called “serious,” including nepotism policy violations, ethics violations by Orozco, repeated violations of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, disregard for proper competitive bidding procedures, and a lack of internal controls over cash receipting and finances that led to a significant decline in the city’s financial stability.

McCarthy called a May 2 news conference, the first she’s held in her almost three years as auditor, to announce the findings. She said her office does not have law enforcement authority and that she was turning over the report to the agencies that do: the state Attorney General’s Office and the Yakima County prosecuting attorney.

Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Brusic said Friday that his office has reviewed findings from the accountability report and a fraud audit, published in February, detailing the loss of more than $300,000 of city funds between 2011 and 2017. He will meet this week with Yakima County Sheriff Robert Udell to launch a criminal investigation.

“People need to understand that an auditor’s report is not the same thing as a criminal investigation,” Brusic said. “But it does give us pathways.”

Brusic said his obligation as county prosecutor is to make sure that investigations are fair, that individuals are presumed innocent until proven guilty and that his decisions are based on evidence.

He said he will go into the criminal investigation with an open mind and that his office will conduct the investigation the same as any other investigation, regardless of Orozco’s standing as an elected official or the notoriety that he and the city of Wapato — the subjects of multiple lawsuits, civil tort claims and audit reports — have engendered.

“My duty is to uphold the law, and there is a presumption of innocence until proven guilty,” he said. “I don’t want to go into this assuming that anyone is guilty. Everyone will be treated fairly.”

Violations of law

Speaking generally, Brusic said that violations of the law are either civil or criminal. As an example of the difference, Brusic said some of the state auditor’s findings — related to mismanagement or lack of controls — would fall in the civil category.

Criminal charges require proving intent to commit wrongdoing, Brusic said. An example of that would be when an elected official uses his or her position for personal gain, which is a gross misdemeanor under Washington law.

“You can’t commit an unauthorized act for personal gain as an elected official,” Brusic said.

Brusic did not comment specifically on which findings in the audit might amount to criminal charges.

But one of the audit’s findings was that Orozco violated the municipal code of ethics when he both created and accepted the city administrator position, which carries a $95,000 annual salary, payable for seven years, even if he is fired.

An investigation

Brusic said he has spoken with McCarthy and the auditor’s fraud manager, Sarah Walker. He also corresponded with the state Attorney General’s Office, though he added that the criminal investigation will be kept between his office and the county sheriff’s office.

“The investigation will remain local, in the county, because it is a local issue,” he said.

Kathleen Cooper, spokeswoman for the auditor’s office, said her agency regularly meets with local law enforcement agencies about fraud reports. She added that her office now has fulfilled its duty, which is auditing Wapato and reporting the findings to the public.

Yakima Sheriff’s Office spokesman Casey Schilperoort confirmed that the office will be collaborating with the county prosecutor’s office on a criminal investigation of Wapato city government.

Schilperoort said that criminal investigations can take anywhere from one day to six months, depending on staffing, cooperation by witnesses and the ability to collect evidence.

Evidence can be anything from interviews with witnesses, photographs, videos, handwritten statements or physical objects, Schilperoort said.

Brusic added that he already has received phone calls and emails from numerous concerned Wapato residents, many of whom he said were “very clear” about what they wanted from him as a county prosecutor in his review of the findings. When asked whether what those residents ultimately wanted was the removal of Orozco from power, Brusic nodded his head.

But he repeated that the investigation will be fair.

“I’ve emailed and called people back who have contacted me, and I appreciate it and I hear what they say,” he said. “But we are going to conduct this investigation in a lawful and respectful manner that follows the criminal justice process.”

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.