The Spokane firefighters union is attempting to block the public from seeing a file of city documents detailing the case against a fireman who quit after admitting on-duty sex with a teenage girl and photographing the encounter.
Firefighters Local 29, representing the city’s 290 firefighters, got a temporary court order Thursday blocking the city attorney’s office from releasing documents about former firefighter Daniel W. Ross sought by The Spokesman-Review under the state’s Open Records Act.
“The information sought by the public disclosure request will violate Dan Ross’ right to privacy” and would be “offensive and embarrassing,” attorney Christian Phelps, representing the former firefighter and the union, said in court filings.
In response, the newspaper filed legal papers Friday stating there’s no legal reason why the documents shouldn’t be released to the public. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday before Superior Court Judge Harold D. Clarke III.
Firefighters union President Greg Borg authorized the legal action the same week he and other union leaders met with Mayor Dennis Hession over the city’s exclusive emergency ambulance provider, American Medical Response. In the AMR meeting, union leaders called on Hession to make city government more transparent and open to the public. The union is asking Hession for an outside investigation into the relationship between the Fire Department and AMR.
Borg didn’t return telephone calls for comment on Friday.
In the firehouse-sex scandal, the union took the legal action after sending the mayor a letter threatening an unfair labor practices complaint if the city released the records about Ross.
If the file about Ross’ conduct is released to the public, Borg said, it “will effectively put a wet blanket on any future discipline hearings.”
“My members will be reluctant to answer questions, knowing their answers will be in the newspaper,” the union president wrote. “If the system of discipline is to continue as is, then this release must be stopped.”
As a union member, Ross was entitled to see the entire file, including the names of his accusers and the city’s case against him, which could have resulted in him being fired if he didn’t resign.
Newspaper attorneys Duane Swinton and Tracy LeRoy said in court papers that the union “has not demonstrated that it is named in the public records at issue or that the records pertain to the union,” and therefore lacks legal standing in the public records suit.
They also said the records in question do not constitute “personal information” that otherwise would be exempt from disclosure under the state’s Open Records Act, which should be “liberally construed” in favor of releasing government files.
State law also clearly holds that the public’s right to know about the conduct of its government overrides any promises of confidentiality that firefighters may have been given during the Ross investigation, the newspaper’s attorneys said.
The newspaper formally requested the records on Feb. 14, about two weeks before publishing a story identifying Ross as the firefighter involved in the encounter at Fire Station No. 17 in northwest Spokane.
The same story identified the two police detectives, Neil Gallion and Sgt. Joe Peterson, as being involved in deleting digital pictures of the consensual sex between the firefighter and the 16-year-old girl.
Police initially said there would be no criminal charges, and the case was closed. But after a public outcry, including a demonstration by women’s groups outside City Hall, Prosecutor Steve Tucker said his office would reopen the investigation.
The incident was reported to police as a rape by the girl’s boyfriend, but detectives concluded the sexual activity in the firehouse was consensual. Possessing sexually explicit pictures of someone under 18 is a felony. Police said they believed Ross’ story that he thought the girl was over 18.
Ross, an 11-year veteran of the Fire Department and father of a 6-week-old daughter, resigned his $63,769-a-year job on March 8 after his attorney received the city’s case against him, outlined in the file of documents.
Because they haven’t been released, it’s unclear what documents are in the file, but they likely include statements from two firefighters on duty with Ross when the sexual encounter occurred on Feb. 10.
The file also is expected to include city computer logs showing Ross used a city firehouse computer to access an adults-only Internet site to meet and chat with the girl before they met for the first time on Feb. 10.
The day Ross resigned, Fire Chief Bobby Williams said the department’s investigation revealed the firefighter had accessed “AdultFriendFinders.com” 22 times in recent months.
Borg and other union leaders said at the time they were glad Ross resigned to avoid further embarrassment to the rank and file.
Ross, who reportedly is moving from Spokane, had until March 31 to file legal papers to block release of the file.
His attorney said a legal action was forthcoming, but nothing was filed until Thursday when Phelps was retained by the union, which is paying the legal bill.
Phelps said Friday the union got involved because its leaders believe the release of the documents, including the Fire Department internal investigation, would have a chilling effect on future investigations.
“I don’t think they’re waving the flag for him to any extent,” Phelps said. “I don’t think they have any big love for Dan Ross at all.”
Phelps said other union firefighters, who were compelled to answer questions as a condition of their employment, “don’t want to be labeled as a ‘snitch’ ” in the ranks or known to the public.