Fired airport employees cleared of racism sue for wrongful termination

VIDEO: Port of Seattle lawsuit

Port of Seattle Commission president John Creighton tweeted to KIRO 7 reporter Alison Grande in August of 2015: "If there is anyone at the @PortofSeattle who feels promoting diversity is hogwash or complying w civil rights laws is burdensome, they have no place at the port & should find new work."

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Deanna Zachrisson and Elaine Lincoln believe those tweets were directed at them.
 
Creighton's tweets "just solidified the fact that he was trying to get rid of us," Lincoln said in an interview with KIRO 7.

The two women accused of racism were cleared of bias – but fired anyway. They tell only KIRO 7’s Amy Clancy why they’re fighting back. Hear from them in her interview on KIRO 7 News at 6 p.m. Watch on-air or online.

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Zachrisson and Lincoln spear-headed Sea-Tac Airport's retail revitalization projects for the past 15 years. Zachrisson was Business Leader of Airport Dining and Retail, known as the ADR group. Lincoln was the former Senior Business Manager for ADR.
 
The two women claim in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed against the Port of Seattle in King County Superior Court that they were at odds with Creighton because they disagreed with his 2012 motion that would give only a handful of minority-owned businesses "preferential direct leases … without requiring the Tenants to compete," according to their legal complaint.

Watch the report from last August here. 
 
"They were asking for something that was going to be outside the principle of open competition, open access, for all kinds of businesses, including other minority businesses," Zachrisson told KIRO 7. "It was just wrong. It was illegal. And in the position that I was in, if I went along with it, then I would be culpable."
 
As part of their ADR positions, the two plaintiffs over-saw Sea-Tac Airport's federally-mandated program to create a level playing field for minority-owned businesses. Called the Airport Concessions Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program, the ACDBE is subject to Federal Aviation Administration regulations
 
After the commission voted to approve Creighton's 2012 motion, Zachrisson brought her concerns to the FAA.
 
In a letter to the Port of Seattle dated Dec. 31, 2012, the FAA also questioned the legality of the motion and suggested the commissioners review it.

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Instead, Zachrisson and Lincoln claim in their lawsuit that Creighton ordered a public disclosure request for all their emails. The PDR uncovered 2011 email exchanges between Zachrisson and Lincoln in which both called one of the minority business owners a "thug."

Zachrisson regrets that in the email exchange, “I could not hold myself to the standard that I would normally hold myself to,” but “I’m human, and we were under pressure for a very long, long time.”

Zachrisson and Lincoln were put on paid-leave once the emails were uncovered and a Port investigation was launched.  However, it found "no evidence of racial bias" contained in their emails.

Zachrisson and Lincoln were fired anyway for violating Port values, conduct, ethics and email policies.

Attorney Beth Bloom, of Frank, Freed Subit & Thomas in Seattle, represents the two former airport employees.

"I think John Creighton was looking for an excuse to fire my clients and he was able to use his political power to mastermind their removal," Bloom told KIRO 7. "He wanted them out of the way so that he could help his friends and campaign contributors get these lucrative, million-dollar leases that they weren't entitled to."

The Port of Seattle has been rocked by email scandal before. In 2007, 32 of its police officers were found to have sent sexually explicit and racially insensitive emails on Port computers. Nine Port of Seattle Police officers were reprimanded, but no one was fired.

"I was held to a different standard" than the reprimanded officers, "but there was a purpose and an intent to that, to get me out of the way so that these leases could move forward without anyone saying anything to the contrary," Zachrisson claims.

Lincoln is also upset that the Port of Seattle didn't defend her and Zachrisson after their 15 years of service to Sea-Tac Airport. "We thought we were protecting the Port by saying 'this is illegal. We can't do this,'" she told KIRO 7. "And we lost."
 
Bloom hasn't yet determined a dollar amount for damages if her clients prevail because she wants to leave that up to a jury, but she said she wants this issue to go to trial, not be settled out of court. "They were trying to prevent political corruption. They were trying to prevent political favors worth millions of dollars to go unchecked, and that's what this lawsuit is about," Bloom said.

When contacted for comment about the new lawsuit, Susan Stoltzfus, Strategic Communications Manager for the Port of Seattle, re-released the following statement, first issued when Zachrisson and Lincoln were terminated.

The Port of Seattle shared the following statement on 8/25/2015:

Port of Seattle CEO Ted Fick shared the results today of an internal investigation he requested on August 7th related to the public disclosure of offensive e-mails written by port employees and sent via the port's e-mail system. This review process has been consistent with the practices and criteria used in previous Port internal investigations.
The investigation concluded: the e-mails violated the Port's e-mail policy (Code of Conduct CC-7), no evidence of racial bias was involved, and the disrespectful language was in conflict with the Port's Values Statement. As a result of this situation, two employees have left the organization and changes have been announced in the Port's management structure.

So far, Commissioner Creighton has not returned an email seeking comment.