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Originally published July 8, 2013 at 9:18 PM | Page modified July 8, 2013 at 9:28 PM

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State employees got massages at the office from co-worker

A state worker studying to become a massage therapist spent dozens of hours giving massages to co-workers last year. But was it illegal?

Seattle Times staff reporter

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One of the state Department of Ecology’s top spill responders spent dozens of hours giving massages to co-workers in the office last year, according to an audit released Monday.

But while the state Auditor’s Office reported that the employee gave 85 hours of massages for personal gain while on the clock, Shannon Cline insists she gave only 34 hours of massages on her breaks, for free, with the permission of supervisors.

“This was something I did in my spare time,” said Cline, 33, of Renton, who performed the massages to fulfill requirements toward getting a license. “My job always came first, and I was very good at it.”

Cline, who worked in the department’s Bellevue office for six years, left in April to enter the massage-therapy business full time.

Nonetheless, the case is expected to be further investigated by the Department of Ecology and the Washington State Executive Ethics Board, which can levy fines of up to $5,000 per violation of ethics law.

The law prohibits employees from conducting outside business on state time and using state property for private benefit. It also prohibits personal use of state resources except on a “de minimis,” or limited, basis.

The audit, conducted in response to a November 2012 whistle-blower complaint from a co-worker, found that Cline’s massages, while free, constituted an outside business because she was in massage-therapy school and required to practice a certain number of hours to obtain a license.

After analyzing Cline’s hard drive and email history, auditors found that she gave 67 massages in the office’s wellness room in 2012. They reportedly took place as early as 10:30 a.m. and as late as 3 p.m.

The massages came throughout the year but peaked last August, when she apparently spent 15 hours giving massages.

Auditors also found that Cline sent 406 personal email messages on the state system last year, including 271 about massages ­­— four of which involved discussions about payment for future massages once she got a license.

Cline said that the number of massages cited by the auditors was inaccurate because she often had to cancel appointments when called to a spill.

Cline estimated that she responded to about 350 environmental incidents per year — more than anybody else in the state, she said.

A spokeswoman for Ecology said Cline was “definitely one of the top” spill responders in the state.

In addition, Cline said each massage took an hour or less, not the “up to one and one-half hours” claimed by the audit.

The hour time period is important because Ecology workers have an hour of breaks each day.

That time is supposed to be split between 30 minutes of paid breaks and 30 minutes of unpaid lunch.

Finally, Cline said her emails fit under the law’s “de minimus” standard because most were short notes to cancel an appointment when a spill occurred.

Troy Niemeyer, the manager of whistle-blower complaints for the Auditor’s Office, said Cline responded to the audit’s findings, but did not provide evidence that the findings were wrong.

“It’s a lot of wasted time,” Niemeyer said of the time Cline spent on massages. “I suppose not wasted for her. But a waste of taxpayer time.”

Niemeyer said auditors found that Cline’s supervisor knew about the massages.

He said the narrow nature of the whistle-blower complaint prevented auditors from investigating whether those receiving massages also acted inappropriately because they, too, were on state time.

Those issues are likely to be a part of the Department of Ecology’s investigation, said spokeswoman Sandi Peck.

“We couldn’t do anything with our own investigation until the report was filed,” she said. “Our time is now.”

Still, the spokeswoman said that the report represents a “black eye for the system.”

Melanie deLeon, the executive director of the state ethics board, said she expects the board to start its investigation soon.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal

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