Former Wapato mayor claims he was wrongfully arrested in lawsuit against sheriff’s office

WAPATO, Wash. — Former Wapato mayor and city administrator Juan Orozco has filed a federal lawsuit against the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office claiming they wrongfully arrested him in 2019.

Orozco was arrested on suspicion of official misconduct and misappropriation and falsification of accounts by a public officer on Aug. 12, 2019 following a months-long investigation by deputies and detectives.

He was later released from custody after a judge ruled the affidavit of probable cause had insufficient evidence to warrant Orozco’s arrest. No charges were filed.

Yakima County commissioners denied Orozco’s claim for $500,000 in damages related to his arrest

In October, attorney Jesus Valdez submitted a claim to Yakima County on Orozco’s behalf for $500,000 in damages, saying Orozco’s “false arrest and detention” caused him emotional and psychological injuries.

The Board of Commissioners denied the claim in a Dec. 7, 2021 resolution after having it reviewed by legal counsel, saying it did not, “establish a basis for Yakima County to pay him any money.”

Following that denied claim, Orozco filed a lawsuit Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington claiming his arrest violated the Civil Rights Act and seeking compensation from the sheriff’s office.

The lawsuit includes claims for alleged civil rights’ violations, negligent infliction of emotional distress, race-based discrimination, outrageous conduct and negligence.

Defendants include the sheriff’s office itself, the two deputies who arrested Orozco — Sergio Reyna and Det. John Duggan — and now-retired Sgt. Judd Towell, who issued the affidavit of probable cause for his arrest.

KAPP-KVEW reached out to Valdez, who is representing Orozco in the lawsuit, but received no response Wednesday. Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell declined to comment on pending litigation.

Criminal investigation sparked by state auditor’s report identifying illegal actions by Wapato officials

Orozco’s tenure as mayor and city administrator was inundated with controversy, including numerous lawsuits over alleged violations of state transparency laws that cost taxpayers thousands of dollars in attorney fees and settlements.

The criminal investigation — and subsequent arrest — of Orozco was sparked by a series of reports released by the Washington State Auditor’s Office, which identified identifying numerous violations of state law by city officials.

Those findings included violations of the Open Public Meetings Act, inappropriate use of funds, nepotism, violation of the city’s personnel policy and non-compliance with state procurement requirements.

According to the auditor’s accountability report, Orozco used his position as mayor to draft a lucrative contract — with a $95,000 annual salary — for a city administrator position that he then filled himself after resigning as mayor.

“The former mayor personally benefitted from the creation of the city administrator position and contract, which he designed without council knowledge or input,” the report said. “State law prohibits municipal officers from using their positions to secure special privileges.”

In addition to violating state law, the report notes those actions violated the city’s personnel policies for hiring and recruiting, an Attorney General opinion and the Code of Ethics for Municipal Officers.

Orozco’s role in creating and then filling the city administrator position was the basis for deputies arresting him on suspicion of official misconduct.

Deputies also arrested Orozco on suspicion of misappropriation and falsification of accounts by a public officer, stemming from a 2018 incident where he allegedly stole a $100 cash donation to the Harvest Festival and told city staff not to record it in the accounting system.

The state auditor’s office determined that money was not put into the receipting system or deposited, but due to “internal control weaknesses” at the city, they couldn’t determine exactly who was responsible for the loss.

The Washington State Attorney General also sued the city and Orozco over the violations of state law and the Code of Ethics for Municipal Officers noted in the state auditor’s findings.

Judge releases Orozco from custody, citing “insufficient evidence”

At Orozco’s first court hearing following his arrest, Yakima County Superior Court Judge Doug Federspiel reviewed the affidavit of probable cause provided by deputies and took issue with its references to the findings by the state auditor’s office.

“I’m not going to allow the state auditor’s office to assume my role to determine probable cause; that’s my job, not theirs,” Federspiel said.

Federspiel ordered that Orozco be released, with no charges filed pending further investigation. However, his order does not prevent prosecutors from potentially filing charges again in the future.

“This is not an exoneration,” Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic told KAPP-KVEW following Orozco’s release in 2019. “This is allowing us to get further information…then go back and ask for probable cause.”