September 7, 2011 in City

Condon slams city, Verner over handling of Zehm case

By The Spokesman-Review

(Full-size photo)

Spokane mayoral challenger David Condon on Tuesday called the city’s handling of the Otto Zehm case “an indictment” on city government and called for greater police oversight as well as at least one dismissal from the city attorney’s office.

But he leveled the harshest criticism at his opponent in the November general election, Mayor Mary Verner.

“As mayor, Mayor Verner has wasted taxpayer money and slowed the course of justice by her defense of the city bureaucracy and the mismanagement of this case,” Condon said in a statement released Tuesday by his campaign.

Zehm, a 36-year-old Spokane man, died following a violent confrontation with police in March 2006. Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. faces federal charges of using excessive force and lying to investigators after the confrontation. The city also faces a civil lawsuit from Zehm’s family.

Late Tuesday, Verner’s campaign fought back with its own news release, in which she accused Condon of “a reckless attempt to use the tragedy of the Otto Zehm death for his personal political ambition.”

Verner’s statement blames the controversy on the administration of Mayor Dennis Hession, who led the city when the confrontation occurred, County Prosecutor Steve Tucker and others.

“I believe the voters will see through his attempt to blame me for actions of a former city administration, the county prosecutor, and other attorneys working on this case in Federal Court. As I have said all along, I respect the judicial process and the facts that will come forth,” Verner said. 

Verner became mayor in November 2007. In June 2009, the city filed a response to the Zehm family’s lawsuit and argued that Zehm bore the blame for the incident. The city said that responding officers followed proper police procedure even though court records indicate by that point the man who led the department at the time of the confrontation, Assistant Chief Jim Nicks, disagreed with that assessment.

In June 2009, officials in the U.S. attorney’s office sought to meet with Verner, City Council President Joe Shogan and police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick. They wanted to discuss prosecutors’ concerns that the city attorney’s office was more concerned about protecting the city from a lawsuit than in the Department of Justice’s “search for the truth,” as it was stated in the email requesting the meeting from Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Durkin to City Attorney Howard Delaney.

Verner has declined to say if she was aware of the request to meet, though the city’s spokeswoman has said officials were appropriately briefed by city attorneys.

At the time of the confrontation, Zehm had been mistakenly identified as a suspect in a possible theft and was confronted in a convenience store. Police initially claimed he had “lunged” at the first officer, despite the fact that store security cameras showed Zehm retreating from the baton-wielding officer.

Verner on Tuesday stressed that the civil case was placed on hold by a federal judge in 2009 and that the city is not a party in the criminal case.

“This is a complex case with many parties and to further victimize the Zehm family by attempting to elevate himself was thoughtless,” her statement said of Condon.

In last month’s five-way primary race for mayor, Verner won big with 59 percent of the vote. Condon garnered 34 percent and moved to the November election as the second-place finisher.

Condon said he had avoided the issue in the campaign until now because recent revelations indicate that the case was mishandled by the mayor’s office. He said Verner should explain to the public if she was informed of the request from federal authorities to meet, and if she was, why she declined to do so.

“The biggest issue is transparency,” Condon said in an interview. “You have to defend the city as an entity, but on the other hand, you have to do right by the citizens.”

Condon’s statement criticizes Verner for shifting blame.

“Prosecutors, police officers, and city attorneys all contributed to this terrible situation. Ultimately, Mayor Verner is to blame for failing to put on the brakes,” he said. “We elect a strong mayor because someone must ultimately take responsibility for the actions of city employees.”

Condon said based on information he’s read in news reports that he believes Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi, who has worked on the case since the night of the confrontation, should be “dismissed immediately.”

The Verner campaign’s news release responded that “a federal judge has also determined that assistant city attorney Rocky Treppiedi’s actions in the case have been appropriate.”

A message to Treppiedi was not returned.

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