Audit: Ex-state worker surfed web, gave massages on state time

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- A six-year state employee surfed the Internet, sent personal emails, and gave coworkers personal massages while on the job, a state whistleblower investigation found this week.

The state auditor's office found that Shannon Cline, a spill responder for the Washington Department of Ecology, sent 406 personal emails, spent time on social networks, and gave 67 massages to fellow employees over a year-long period - all while she should've been at work in her Bellevue office.

The employee's Internet history showed that she had browsed social networking sites, music, airlines, cooking information and her personal email account - all apparent violations of agency policy. The state's email system was used to schedule appointments with other employees, and the massages were given in the department's "health wellness room."

"It wouldn't matter too much what she was doing; the issue was we found up to 85 hours where she just wasn't doing her job but she was being paid for it, so that was the real foul here," said Doug Cochran, chief of staff at the state auditor's office. "She wasn't necessarily using state resources other than her own time; she wasn't making money on the side; what she was doing was violating policy."

Cline, who now works as a full-time massage therapist, insists she had approval from supervisors to give the massages during break times.

"I did my work. I was good at my work. And I always put my work first," Cline said, while sitting in her Bellevue office Monday, "so if I wanted to spend my breaks practicing a trade that I enjoyed and in that time give relaxation to and focus to another state employee, I think that's a win-win."

"I had more responses than any other spill responder. I went through the proper steps. I did the right things and my job always came first," Cline continued, "so I didn't think I was using more than (minimal) state resources to work my practice massages into what spare time I had."

In response to the auditor's findings, the Department of Ecology will speak with Cline's supervisors and also issue an agency-wide reminder about personal email and Internet use.

"People are upset here hearing about the story, thinking it's a black eye on an agency that they're proud to work for," said Sandi Peck, director of communications for the Department of Ecology. "It's a big deal, because 99 percent of the time we get it right. We take it very seriously. If there's any good news, this shows the (whistleblower) system worked."

A state ethics committee will decide whether to level any fines or other punishments, Cochran said. Cline left her job with the state before the audit was released Monday.

Cline, who often responded to oil spills and haz-mat situations on the road or in the water, doesn't feel as though she violated state ethics law.

"I think it's an unfortunate set of circumstances that I've been caught in. I was the top spill responder in the state for years," she said. "I was shocked (by the report)."