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Wednesday, April 21, 2010 - Page updated at 11:10 AM


Prolific sealer of files also accused of ethical lapses

Seattle Times staff reporters

For years, King County Superior Court Commissioner Stephen Gaddis oversaw the guardianships of thousands of vulnerable people. He also hid more of these court cases from public scrutiny than any of his colleagues.

Gaddis sealed at least 48 guardianship cases in their entirety since 1990, according to a Seattle Times review of available sealing orders. Not one was properly sealed.

He also seemed to play favorites in court, go on tirades, and take glee in spotting paperwork flaws, according to complaints filed against him.

In some cases, wards paid the price.

The state Commission on Judicial Conduct and King County Superior Court both reprimanded Gaddis. Last year, he retired from the King County bench.

Appointed as court commissioner in 1981, Gaddis later found a niche hearing guardianship cases, and developed a reputation as an expert and reformer in that area of law. He instituted rules to protect wards, developed ethics guidelines and helped write legislation to monitor guardians.

But there was another side to Gaddis. Between 1991 and 2002, according to court records, he amassed 17 written complaints and numerous oral complaints. In 1997, the presiding judge told Gaddis in a memo that he'd received "at least a half dozen complaints over the past month or two ... from inside and outside court."

Gaddis, 61, downplays the issue. "Seventeen complaints in 25 years is a pat on the back," he said recently.

But former Presiding Judge Richard Eadie said: "In my opinion, that was a lot. Most of our judicial officers don't get complaints like that."

Several complaints accused Gaddis of mistreating parties in guardianship cases. One case involved parents of a child who was killed in an accident. Another son was injured. They asked Gaddis to approve a plan in which they paid college tuition for the surviving son with settlement money.

Gaddis told them they were "shirking their parental duties" by not paying for college out of their own pocket, their complaint said.

"What should have been a routine matter became a devastating experience," wrote the parents' lawyer.

Gaddis later said he had merely been explaining the law. He eventually approved their plan.

In June 2002, Guardianship Services of Seattle (GSS) and its related company, Partners In Care, presented Eadie with a 60-page complaint against Gaddis.

Among the allegations: Gaddis accepted sets of tickets for third-row seats at two Mariners games and a $287 dinner from guardian James Degel, 55, a lawyer whose cases Gaddis regularly ruled on.

In addition, GSS wrote that Gaddis was biased and had made untrue accusations about the company out of the blue in a crowded courtroom.

The complaint also detailed Gaddis' friendship with Partners in Care director Lynne Fulp, 59, whose cases he regularly ruled on. Gaddis invited her to his house to help her write a business plan for a guardianship company. He and his wife gave Fulp birthday presents and shared meals with her.

He also sent her an e-mail that said: "WOW, you have done more yet in your self improvement campaign! Lynne, I would be guilty of improprieties if I said how nice you looked, but as a friend I would be guilty of insensitivity if I said nothing."

When colleagues told Fulp that Gaddis favored her over other guardians in court, she said she grew uncomfortable.

"I have come to believe there is no place for Commissioner Gaddis' tactics in an industry on which vulnerable people rely," she told Eadie, reading from a statement.

Gaddis disputed many of the allegations, saying GSS cooked them up because he repeatedly ruled against the company. "They fought back," he said.

He also said Fulp had sought his friendship.

Gaddis acknowledged that accepting baseball tickets from Degel created the appearance of impropriety. At the time, he "didn't see it as a big thing."

As for the expensive dinner, which included Fulp, Gaddis said he and Degel took turns paying when they met over meals to discuss guardianship issues.

Buying dinner for Gaddis was poor judgment, Degel said, but not an attempt at influence. He said he routinely offered unused Mariners tickets to friends and acquaintances. Gaddis was the first taker.

In 2004, the Commission on Judicial Conduct reprimanded Gaddis for the appearance of impropriety in ruling on cases involving Fulp and Degel, instead of recusing himself. King County court reprimanded him the year before.

"I see now how it appeared, and will never do anything like this again," Gaddis apologized in a letter to the court. "I am truly and profoundly sorry." He said he has since paid for his part of the dinner.

As for all the files he sealed, Gaddis said he granted secrecy to protect medical and financial information.

After retiring last year, he began offering his services as a private mediator.

He applied to be a temporary commissioner for King County courts but was turned down. Pierce County, though, hired him to fill in as a temporary court commissioner and judge.

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