WAPATO — The FBI could possibly be getting involved in ongoing investigations into allegations of criminal activity by city of Wapato leadership.
That was part of an update by Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic, who spoke to about 50 people at the Wolf Den in Wapato on Wednesday evening.
Brusic said information was limited in what he could share about investigations regarding City Administrator Juan Orozco, who served as mayor of Wapato in 2017 before resigning and accepting his new job in 2018.
Orozco and actions he’s taken in the past two years are the subject of five lawsuits, nine civil tort claims and a state auditor’s report published in May that noted eight findings of egregious, negligent mismanagement.
Since the publication of the audit, Brusic said he’s been working through filings regarding Gloria Acosta, the city’s previous deputy clerk-treasurer, considered to be at the heart of more than $300,000 of misappropriated funds from 2011 to 2017.
He’s been in touch with the state Attorney General’s Office, which recently filed a civil lawsuit against Orozco with demands that he be removed from office and that any money paid to him — including his annual $95,000 salary and any possible severance pay in the event he is fired — be returned to Wapato.
Brusic also has been working with the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office on an investigation into allegations of criminal wrongdoing by members of Wapato leadership and the City Council.
“Please understand that investigations take some time,” Brusic said. “We’re looking at several possible criminal statutes, but we cannot rush to judgment.”
Calls for removal, accountability
Brusic said he did not have the authority to swoop in and remove Orozco, or anyone else in leadership roles.
“Part of the problem is these individuals have been put into power and they were voted in,” Brusic said, to titters from the audience.
Several members of the audience shouted that Orozco had become mayor following a controversial win involving several allegedly fake ballots and that a majority of members of the City Council had been appointed rather than elected.
Brusic noted that he and the sheriff’s office had attempted to open an investigation into the controversial ballots during the election that put Orozco into power but had been stonewalled by Wapato citizens themselves.
“The very people in the community did not cooperate,” he said. “When I asked for your help, you did not help me. With this investigation, we need you to cooperate.”
Mary Ellen Robinson, a Wapato resident, then asked Brusic if anyone had threatened to sue the prosecuting attorney’s office and the state auditor if the controversial ballots had not been allowed and if that had made a difference. Brusic said threats did not impact his work.
“I have had numerous people threaten me, and it makes no difference. I don’t get bullied at this stage of life,” he said. “We do exactly what we intend to do.”
When asked, Brusic said he had no personal friendship with Orozco or with Wapato police Sgt. Michael Campos, who was involved in a fatal shooting in July 2016.
Talk then turned to a civil legal action in Washington law called “Quo Warranto,” in which a county prosecutor can seek removal of public officials under certain circumstances.
The writ — if filed against Orozco, Mayor Dora Alvarez-Roa or any council member — would require that the individuals appear in Superior Court to defend why they should remain in their positions.
Brusic said he has never made such a filing. Such filings are rare, he said, but he added that he’s meeting next week with someone to learn more.
Multiple audience members then shared concerns that city individuals who left power would not be held accountable for any crimes committed during their tenure.
Yakima County sheriff’s patrol Lt. A.M. Wuitschick said that wasn’t the case.
“If new people get elected, it’s not going to stop the investigation,” he said. “The investigation is going to continue. If anyone has committed a crime, civil or criminal, they will be held accountable.”
Questions and answers
During a question period that followed, Wapato residents Lucy Alvarado and Jose Vela shared concerns that Orozco, while still in power, was continuing to spend money the city did not have on projects the city could not sustain.
“The city of Wapato is bleeding money, and I understand that, and that might be something we take into consideration,” Brusic replied.
Vela responded, “We’re not just bleeding, we’re having our heads chopped off!”
Several residents who have lawsuits pending against the city then cited personal experiences of feeling harassed or intimidated when they went against Orozco’s agenda. Others testified to having sons or friends in the police force or the jail, while it was still in operation, who had resigned after being told by Orozco to intimidate opponents.
Several individuals also shared fears that the Orozco administration had an active campaign to harass other candidates running for City Council and mayor in the Aug. 5 primary.
Brusic suggested filing official anti-harassment orders or reports with the Wapato Police Department or the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office. His advice was met with incredulous comments from the audience, with multiple people saying their concerns had fallen on deaf ears or that Wapato police were being used to do Orozco’s bidding.
Sue Pearson, a former Wapato city clerk-treasurer, shared that residents had been trying to get help through the proper channels.
“There’s a lot of stuff that’s been happening that people have been talking about for years,” she said. “It’s only now that the auditor stood by us that we’re seeing any movement.”
Doug Milne, who is running for City Council, said he had reached out to the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office to ask staff to look into the investigation Wapato police were supposedly conducting and was told that the office was not going to touch the investigation in Wapato.
Brusic said he had been in touch with Gerald Towell, the sheriff’s detective assigned to the case. Wuitschick confirmed that the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office had reopened the investigation as of July 3.
A final concern of the audience was whether taxpayers would pay for legal fees in lawsuits in which Orozco was named individually, rather than as part of the city of Wapato. Brusic said it was a concern he was investigating.
He said the investigations would remain respectful, professional and aggressive.
“It’s important that you understand how seriously we’re taking this,” he said. “We want to do the right thing, but we want to do it the right way.”