October 11, 2012 in Opinion

Editorial: County must understand honesty the best policy


The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

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A public feud waged by a prominent family of developers has many angles: the lawsuits and countersuits; Spokane County botching a permitting decision; a request for a campaign contribution; and the heated race for a Spokane County Commission seat between Todd Mielke and John Roskelley.

But, first thing, the question of whether the county was defrauded rises to the top because time is running out.

To recap this somewhat convoluted story, an administrative mistake by the county shut down a Mead-area housing development in 2008. Developer Harley Douglass then sued the county for $2.3 million over business losses related to delays caused by the foul-up. The county settled the case for $685,000. Then Harley Douglass sued his business partners, brother Lanzce and sister Stacey, saying he should get the entire damage award.

Lanzce and Stacey Douglass filed a countersuit, and Lanzce Douglass went to the county with allegations that Harley Douglass filed bogus expense reports totaling $68,000. To support the charge, he has a sworn statement from Todd Whipple, a civil engineer who works for Harley Douglass, saying he was asked by his boss to submit invoices that matched checks written for a different project. Then those invoices were allegedly submitted to the county as part of the damage claim.

If true, this would appear to be a case of fraud. The county confirms there is a criminal investigation under way. However, the statute of limitations on such a case expires in November, and Lanzce Douglass fears the county is running out the clock.

Lanzce Douglass says he has met with Commissioners Todd Mielke and Al French over the matter. Mielke explains that the settlement was a good deal for the county. Other officials are worried the settlement could unravel and the county could be on the hook for more money. When nothing happened, Lanzce Douglass went to John Roskelley, who is Mielke’s opponent in the County Commission race, and the media.

Setting aside the politics and the family feud, the $68,000 question remains. Was the county defrauded? Officials were alerted as early as February of possible criminal activity. Leaving the matter unresolved would invite suspicion that a prominent citizen was given a break.

While we understand why the county would be worried about paying more if the settlement unravels, it’s this type of calculation that erodes public trust. Just ask the city of Spokane. For years, the risk managers at City Hall had inordinate influence over decision-making, which caused the city take an aggressive posture with citizens who had legitimate complaints, particularly against the Police Department. Rather than considering right and wrong, City Hall focused on the amount of dollars it might have to relinquish.

The lesson for the county ought to be clear: Short-term victories can lead to long-term nightmares. Get the facts out, and then deal with the consequences honestly and transparently.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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