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Mayor David Condon knew of alleged sexual harassment by police chief in April, records show

Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub and Mayor David Condon discuss plans to implement the recommendations of the Use of Force Commission during a news conference, Feb. 15, 2013 at Spokane City Hall. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub and Mayor David Condon discuss plans to implement the recommendations of the Use of Force Commission during a news conference, Feb. 15, 2013 at Spokane City Hall. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane Mayor David Condon knew in April that a female city employee accused former police Chief Frank Straub of sexual harassment because he had “grabbed her ass, tried to kiss her.”

The accusations from Monique Cotton, the former police spokeswoman, were told to Condon and City Administrator Theresa Sanders to “give context” to an outburst by Straub on March 31. At that meeting, Straub accused his senior staff in a profanity-laced tirade of withholding information from him and making him look bad, according to notes from multiple people at the meeting. The notes were released by the city late Tuesday in response to public records requests filed in August.

Though that meeting was called to discuss one hour of overtime accrued by Lt. Mark Griffiths, it quickly evolved into Straub “screaming” at Cotton, Griffiths and Capt. Eric Olsen, according to a memo of the meeting written by Griffiths.

Other memos and notes released by the city show that meeting was a flashpoint for Cotton, who almost immediately demanded to be transferred from the police department, citing previous abusive behavior from Straub.

“My transfer into a new position has to be viewed as advancement,” Cotton wrote to Sanders in a text message on April 13. “I never wanted to be in this situation of having to come forward to you or the mayor in strict confidence. I am not the one who did anything wrong. … I just wanted assistance to be placed in an environment free from that kind of conduct, while not impacting my career and drawing negative attention.”

Though Cotton declined to speak by phone, she released a statement Tuesday saying she “feared for my safety and the security of my employment.”

“I have made significant efforts to discreetly and professionally navigate this extremely difficult work situation,” she wrote. “I sought legal counsel because I feared for my safety and the security of my employment. In addition to the harassment I reported to city leaders, my concerns mirror those outlined by the current Executive Staff and the Lieutenants and Captains Association. My goal has never been to profit from this terrible situation and to date I have not filed a claim for damages. Rather, I am trying to survive these awful circumstances, maintain my employment and continue to productively contribute to the City of Spokane.”

Brian Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman, said the mayor would not comment directly on the matter.

“The records speak for themselves,” Coddington said.

Mary Schultz, Straub’s lawyer, suggested the documents were selectively released to paint Straub as a villain.

“This is preposterous,” Schultz wrote in an email. “This is a salacious and methodical diversion by the city from the real issue. If the city gave Ms. Cotton a ‘job advancement’ because she springboarded from a reprimand into a new job description by threatening false claims of harassment, then that has nothing to do with merit, and everything to do with why Spokane is now seen nationally as a city that can’t keep its police chiefs.”

Straub was forced to resign in September, with Condon saying at the time that the Lieutenants and Captains Association had complained about his leadership. Straub filed a $4 million claim against the city for violation of due process.

The documents show Cotton’s fears and accusations went to the highest levels of city government, with Sanders writing “the mayor put the matter in my hands to investigate.”

In her notes from a phone call with Cotton on April 14, Sanders wrote that Cotton said she “cannot be party to a complaint regarding sexual harassment.”

“This person has hurt me enough (Frank). I don’t want to be hurt anymore,” Cotton told Sanders.

Cotton also told Sanders, more than once, that Straub “grabbed her ass, tried to kiss her,” according to the documents. Sanders wrote in her notes, “Stated she has texts. Told her I would look into the matter and that she would have a job.”

Cotton told Sanders she only conveyed the “ ‘confidential information’ regarding sexual harassment … to provide ‘context’ for Frank’s recent outburst.”

The notes also suggest how Cotton became spokeswoman for the parks department.

“Offered parks,” the notes read. “Same pay, same level of reporting. Will do really positive messaging. … She will work with Brian (Coddington) on positive communication.”

Two months later, an agreement between Cotton and the city administration became troubled.

On June 8, her attorney, Bob Dunn, wrote a strongly worded letter to Condon and Sanders demanding payment of $13,276.89 for “fees and expenses.”

Over the next couple of days, Dunn and city Attorney Nancy Isserlis volleyed emails at each other over the payment. Dunn suggested using a “reimbursement agreement” to keep the documents from becoming public record.

“We have examples that the City has routinely generated for law firms, lawyers, mediators, etc. covered by attorney client privilege approved by City Legal,” Dunn wrote.

Isserlis responded that Dunn “might want to read the city ethics code.”

“Thanks, but I suspect I read it long before you became City employed,” Dunn replied.

Isserlis said she was referring to updated ethics rules approved earlier this year by the City Council. Dunn, confusingly, wrote, “Perfect, then it should be easy for us to get where we need to be.”

No response came from Isserlis, and Dunn again replied.

“Nancy – so where are we on our issue please? Obviously we want this addressed before it turns into a Police Omsbudsman headline, right?” he wrote.

On June 17, Dunn wrote another strongly worded letter, this one with a threat to make the situation public.

“A promise was made for services rendered, my client relied on those promises, and then performed as requested,” Dunn wrote. “The City should know by now that I have absolutely no problem filing tort claims against it. However in this situation, that was not the course my client wanted to pursue, nor was it the agreement.”

To drive the point home, however, Dunn gave an example of the letter he would write if the city didn’t cooperate. In that “hypothetical claim” section, Dunn said “Mayor Condon knew or should have known about the candidate’s (Straub’s) personal relationship improprieties with female subordinates, yet nonetheless intentionally ignored such information …”

The hypothetical claim suggests that Condon and other city leaders willfully ignored Straub’s harassment, saying they “did absolutely nothing to supervise or monitor that hire’s subsequent predatory and sexually inappropriate misconduct and outrageous interactions, including physical and emotional assaults with and against subordinate female City employees.”

Dunn suggests he would pursue a claim against the city for “an amount not less than $500,000” if it did not reimburse him for the agreement.

In her response to Dunn, city Attorney Nancy Isserlis said Cotton or Dunn must file a claim to be reimbursed, otherwise she would be violating the city’s ethics code and state law.

“The City immediately accommodated her request for reassignment, and it appears that she is doing well in her new role,” Isserlis wrote about Cotton. She included a blank claim form for Dunn.

Schultz said that Straub had never seen the documents released by the city. She referred to Cotton and Dunn’s claims as “histrionic unfounded but wildly salacious accusations.”

“It appears that Ms. Cotton hired the very Attorney who repeatedly sues the City, and that Attorney ended up begging for $13,000,” Schultz wrote in her statement.

There are no other documents showing communication between Dunn and city officials in the records release, and the documents don’t indicate if Dunn was paid by the city.

Dunn did not return a call seeking comment.