The American Civil Liberties Union says the Spokane city attorney’s office violated the constitutional rights of a local attorney.
In a letter to city officials last week, Michael Kipling, an attorney representing the ACLU, said that Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi violated Breean Beggs’ rights by telling Beggs he was prohibited from talking to City Council members about proposed changes to the city’s police oversight law.
“There can be no dispute that accountability and oversight are matters of general policy and of legitimate public concern,” Kipling wrote. “As such, citizens such as Mr. Beggs have an absolute right to communicate with elected officials regarding such issues.”
Until earlier this year, Beggs led Spokane’s Center for Justice. He still represents the estate of Otto Zehm in a lawsuit against the city. Zehm died in 2006 after he was beaten, shocked with a Taser and hogtied during a confrontation with police. One officer involved in that incident faces federal charges of using excessive force and lying to investigators.
At one time, the Zehm estate proposed that the creation of a more vigorous police oversight system could be part of a settlement of the dispute, Beggs said. But the city and estate did not come to an agreement and the estate filed suit.
In the meantime, the Spokane City Council created the position of police ombudsman. The ombudsman, Tim Burns, started work last year. This summer the council approved changes to the ordinance to strengthen Burns’ position by allowing him to conduct investigations independently from the police.
Treppiedi’s letter, sent in June as the city was finalizing the new ordinance, argues that Beggs’ discussions with the City Council about the changes to police oversight were done on behalf of the Zehm estate.
“Your direct advice to the council members has been contrary to the advice provided by this office,” Treppiedi wrote.
But Beggs said he never talked about the Zehm case with council members. He added that changes to the ombudsman rules have no effect on the lawsuit.
“Because we once mentioned police oversight, his rule is that I can never talk to a City Council member about police oversight,” Beggs said.
Beggs said he was asked by City Council members to help craft a stronger ombudsman ordinance that could withstand a challenge from the Spokane Police Guild, the union representing police officers. He even participated in a meeting with city attorneys and City Council members about changes. No city attorneys in the room expressed concern about his presence, Beggs said.
In his letter, Treppiedi threatened to file a complaint with the Washington State Bar Association if Beggs did not cease contact with city leaders about the ombudsman ordinance.
City Attorney Howard Delaney said his office is taking the ACLU letter “under advisement.”
“I don’t view the factual scenario similarly to the way Breean couches it,” Delaney said.
In an interview last month, Mayor Mary Verner said she agreed with Treppiedi’s action.
“There wasn’t any concern about (Beggs) exercising his right to petition his elected official,” Verner said. “It was that he had simultaneous roles going and there was a blurring of which role he was engaged in at any given time.”
Some council members, however, said Treppiedi wrongly intervened and at least should have spoken to council members before sending the letter.
“I thought it was improper,” said City Councilman Bob Apple. “I should have a right to talk to my constituents.”
Meanwhile, the council agreed this week to pay $20,000 to attorney Keller Allen to defend the city’s new police oversight law.
Last month, the guild challenged the ombudsman rules with the state Public Employment Relations Commission, arguing that the new ordinance affects the working conditions of its members and thus must be bargained.
City Council members said that because the ombudsman can’t discipline officers, the changes don’t need guild approval. Union leaders had warned that they likely would challenge the new rules.
“The City Council knew that before they took that action,” said Spokane Police Guild President Ernie Wuthrich.
The original ombudsman ordinance, approved in 2008, was negotiated with the guild.
Delaney said he didn’t want to use an in-house attorney to defend the changes because the city earlier released a memo about the oversight law that talked about possible challenges. He said the memo could be used against the city by attorneys representing the guild. He also noted that one of city attorneys who specialized in labor issues is now the acting human resources director.
“Was the risk involved worth what was ultimately gained by the amendments?” Delaney said. “We’ll have to wait until PERC shakes out.”