OLYMPIA - Brenda Hill not only got Gov. Booth Gardner's pen yesterday, but also a law to protect her and other citizen whistle-blowers from retaliatory lawsuits.
Scorning the usual off-white gift pen handed out at bill-signings, Hill all but snatched Gardner's own black pen from the amused governor's hand after he signed the bill before a knot of onlookers.
The measure, which will apply retroactively to Hill, provides citizen whistle-blowers immunity and legal help when they are sued for their actions.
"I didn't want the gift pen. I wanted his pen. The one he signed the bill with,'' she said with a laugh.
It was that kind of assertiveness that led Hill in 1987 to alert state revenue officials to Beverly Hills, Calif., developer Warren Ashman's failure to pay real estate taxes on her home and about 300 others he sold in Washington.
Hill made the discovery when she and her husband, Gary, tried to refinance their home in Vancouver and could not because the excise tax had not been paid. Revenue officials asked Hill to investigate further, and as a result of her work, collected $477,000 from Ashman.
The developer has filed a $100,000 defamation suit against the Hills. The couple is counter-suing Ashman.
The Hills' legal costs, along with Ashman's foreclosure on their house, forced them into bankruptcy filings last year, the Hills said. Ashman has been unavailable for comment.
The whistle-blower protection measure, sponsored by Rep. Holly Myers, D-Vancouver, came after Brenda Hill picketed the Capitol, and implored Gardner and Attorney General Ken Eikenberry to come to her aid. Both said they lacked legal authority to do so.
The black cloud hanging over Brenda Hill blew away when a jury found she did not slander the company that took her home.
She no longer has her home, but after six years, a legal cloud has been swept from over the head of Brenda Hill, whose plight in 1989 inspired Washington's whistle-blower protection law.
The cloud was a $1.2 million slander suit a company filed in an effort to punish her for exposing the company's failure to file official acknowledgments in home purchases, and to pay real estate excise taxes on those unrecorded sales.
But a jury ruled Friday that Hill did not slander the Robert John Real Estate Co. when she suggested her neighbors should check into their own home purchase contracts and taxes.
The 12-member panel deliberated 2 1/2 hours in Clark County Superior Court before reaching the unanimous verdict.
Hill, 29, burst into tears after leaving the courtroom with her husband, Gary Hill, a codefendant.
"I want to hug them all,'' she said, referring to the jurors.
Robert John Co. has been virtually out of business since the matter began. It was forced to sell off its assets for "cents on the dollar'' to pay a $350,000 tax and penalty settlement with the state.
The company kept its corporate status for the last 5 1/2 years to pursue its case against the Hills. Ironically, Robert John Co.'s only remaining asset is the Hills' former home, which it took back in 1989 after the couple was late on a payment.
Brenda Hill's battle prompted the state Legislature in 1989 to pass a "whistle-blower'' bill protecting citizens who report wrongdoing. The law provides immunity from civil damages and permits the state attorney general to defend whistle-blowers in lawsuits.
Waiting for the verdict to be reached, Hill said she and her husband were prepared to leave Vancouver if they lost the suit.
"One of the hardest things was going through all this,'' she said. "They have our home. We don't even have a home.''
After returning their decision, jurors said that it was clear Hill's comments in 1987 did not meet any legal definition of slander.
"We were asking the (plaintiff's) attorneys if they really felt that there was a basis for the suit,'' said Keith Peal, a 35-year-old marketing manager. "I kept waiting for them to drop the bombshell, and it never really came.''
Dennis Elliott, a lawyer for Robert John Co., acknowledged that the case was a "longshot.'' But he said it was important for the company to tell its side of the story and to "see how far a person can go in a situation where they're trying to mobilize the community.''
Company principals Warren Ashmann and Gerald Rome, both Beverly Hills, Calif., attorneys, were not present the last day of the weeklong trial.
Robert John Co. filed suit in July 1987, claiming that Hill was damaging its reputation by telling neighbors that the company owed money in unpaid taxes and that sellers had been working without a real estate license.
Hill's attorney Bruce Mowery provided evidence that those comments and others were in fact true.
The Hills discovered when they tried to refinance the home they had purchased from Robert John Co. in 1984 that the company had failed to record the sales contract and pay $1,300 in excise taxes.
Encouraged by state tax officials, Brenda Hill visited 100 other Robert John homeowners to collect information and warn them that their contracts may not have been recorded with the county.
Company executives said during the trial that they routinely "deferred'' the excise tax so that renters ineligible for conventional loans could buy a home with low interest and a minimal down payment.
The tax and accrued interest penalties would be paid whe n the 10-year contract was up; when the home was refinanced; or if the company had the money, they said.
State law requires that the tax be paid within 30 days of a sale. There are no criminal penalties for failure to pay, but the state assesses a monthly interest penalty.
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