Seattle can freeze assets of ex-worker charged in $1.1M theft
The temporary restraining order allows the city of Seattle to immediately freeze the assets of former project engineer Joseph Phan, accused of stealing $1.1 million from Seattle Public Utilities.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A King County Superior Court judge granted the city of Seattle a temporary restraining order Tuesday to immediately freeze the assets, including the city pension, of a former project engineer accused of stealing $1.1 million from Seattle Public Utilities (SPU).
The Seattle City Attorney's Office asked Judge Carol Schapira for an order that would bar Joseph Phan and his wife, Tra My Thi Le, from accessing their bank accounts and transferring or removing money, except for reasonable living expenses.
Schapira agreed to freeze the assets until a full hearing is held on the legal issues later this month.
City attorneys filed the civil suit Friday, hoping to recover some of the funds. Phan is in jail on $750,000 bail.
"Our goal is full financial recovery for ratepayers through swift and aggressive civil remedies," said City Attorney Pete Holmes in a statement.
SPU Director Ray Hoffman also asked the city Employees' Retirement System to deny Phan's future retirement allowance because of what he characterized as "willful misconduct." Phan's pension is valued at $116,000, according to the utility.
Phan and his wife jointly own a rental house and two undeveloped properties in the county that prosecutors say were purchased with stolen city funds. A fourth property is recorded in Phan's name alone.
Phan was arrested March 2 and charged with 70 counts of theft in what prosecutors say is the largest embezzlement of public funds in modern King County history. Phan is scheduled to be arraigned on the criminal charges Monday.
Police recovered $220,000 from Phan's bank account, but say about $500,000 is unaccounted for.
Phan worked for SPU from 1995 through 2011, when he was fired for accessing the utility's computer system and crediting his own accounts without actually making payments.
Seattle police and utility investigators claim they subsequently uncovered evidence that Phan, an associate civil engineer, collected payments for water-main extension projects from developers and other utility customers and deposited them in a private bank account. He didn't prepare a city invoice and so there was no record of the work being completed or a payment due.
The City Council has called for an audit of the water-main-extension payment system to be completed by the Seattle city auditor. A work plan is due April 3, with the audit report completed by Aug. 31.
Councilmember Jean Godden, who chairs the Finance Committee, has also asked the utility to identify additional areas of business that could be vulnerable to abuse.
Despite annual audits by the city and state, no audit was ever performed on the water-main-extension program.
SPU generates about $800 million in revenues annually while that program brought in about $1 million, according to SPU officials.
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.