A botched search for child pornography at the home of a Spokane firefighter will cost Washington taxpayers $2.4 million.
The Washington State Patrol and the attorney for Spokane Fire Department Lt. Todd Chism have settled a lawsuit stemming from the January 2008 search of Chism’s home that found nothing.
Chism and his attorney, Bob Dunn, had filed a $10 million suit against the WSP, which arrested Chism on the charge of child pornography possession. However, the investigation soon revealed that purchase was traced to Chism’s wife’s stolen bank card and the Chisms had done nothing wrong.
“Basically, our decision was to stop the bleeding because this has caused terrible damage to my family,” Chism said. “My opinion is they defrauded the taxpayers of $2.4 million because they knew in the first week that they had made a huge mistake. Rather than doing the right thing, they chose to do everything they could to not take responsibility.”
Chism returned to work two weeks ago at the Spokane Fire Department after having racked up more than $53,000 in paid leave.
WSP spokesman Dan Coon said his agency accepted the settlement and acknowledged that WSP investigators made mistakes.
“It was originally a good faith effort to protect children from a predator,” Coon said of the flawed 2008 investigation. “But as we have seen, there were some oversights in the investigation process that was involved. Most regrettably these oversights caused the Chism family distress in the public arena. We learned from our mistakes and continue to move forward protecting the children.”
The settlement follows a legal decision last year by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that false statements made by WSP Detective Rachel Gardner and Sgt. John Sager amounted to “intentional and reckless conduct” that infringed on Chism’s civil rights.
Gardner and Sager used false information to obtain the search warrant in which a dozen or more troopers and Spokane County Sheriff’s deputies converged on the Chism home, Dunn said. In the application for the search warrant, Gardner did not inform the judge that the IP address associated with the Internet accounts in question “were traced to people other than the Chisms.”
“The real travesty of what they did is they invented a bunch of stuff in the search warrants that pornography was actually purchased,” Dunn said. “When the WSP decided to arrest Todd … (they) assumed the male would be the one who would purchase the porn even if it was in Nicole’s name. Based on what the WSP did, that purchase on a bank card statement is enough to implicate you of a felony.”
The investigation revealed that two $40 transactions on Nichole Chism’s stolen bank card purchased hosting fees for websites, Dunn said. But no pornography was ever downloaded to the sites and the investigation never revealed who used the bank card. The hosting sites often are used by persons to upload pornography so that it can’t be tracked back to them, Dunn said.
Chism said the investigators used “Gestapo” type tactics in how they handled the case by not verifying the information before searching his home and Spokane real estate business. He said WSP troopers came up to him after his arrest and offered apologies even as their agency defended its investigators’ actions.
“What’s more scary than an organization that can come into your house illegally and charge you illegally?” he said. “That has had a devastating effect on my family for four-and-a-half years.”
The settlement announced Friday is not related to a second $10 million civil suit that Chism and Dunn have filed against the WSP stemming from an April 6, 2010, confrontation outside Chism’s Nine Mile Falls home.
In that case, troopers were called to a report of a vehicle in a ditch. Trooper Gregory Riddell arrived and spoke with Chism, who later failed a sobriety test. A second trooper, Greg Birkeland, arrived and Chism became agitated when Birkeland noted Chism’s name sounded “familiar.”
A melee ensued, in which one trooper suffered a broken thumb, the other suffered an injured hand and Chism suffered several shocks from a Taser and punches in the face.
A Stevens County jury last year exonerated Chism on felony assault charges.