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Shawn Vestal: Refusal to talk to investigator communicates contempt for the public

This column has been changed to correct an error in the original.

So, lots of witnesses aren’t talking.

But the city employees who are refusing to be interviewed by the city’s investigator into the firing of the police chief are communicating loudly nonetheless: Guilt, perhaps. Ethical sloth, possibly. Contempt for the public, certainly.

The city’s probe into the firing of police Chief Frank Straub is in danger of becoming a very bad joke. If it does, it will put an exclamation point on the plunge from police reform back to donning the old moth-eaten robes of corruption and butt-covering at City Hall – an atmosphere closer to the Rocky Treppiedi model of denial and counterattack than the new-day vision that sent Treppiedi packing. This will be the inevitable appearance if the investigator hired by the mayor and City Council produces a report in which a lot of significant witnesses refuse to be interviewed, and if the mayor refuses to use his authority to encourage or even compel testimony.

It will look like – and there will be no substantive argument against this appearance – a whitewash.

The sounds of silence are reverberating. For starters, Straub himself isn’t talking, and his attorney, Mary Schultz, is dismissive of the entire enterprise. This is unfortunate in the extreme, and one might wish – in an idealistic universe – that someone hired to lead the city’s police department might not lose his sense of public duty so very quickly.

Monique Cotton, whose complaints about Straub set the ball rolling, has apparently indicated that she would be interviewed, though her attorney, Bob Dunn, says he would advise her not to. He has also expressed an acrid contempt for the process, in emails to the investigator.

Several members of the police department have refused to talk, as well. Perhaps that’s not surprising – maybe if the investigator were an officer about to be charged with raping another officer, she could get a call back. (Though, in what was not an April Fool’s Day joke by Superior Court Judge John Cooney, felony charges of rendering criminal assistance against former Police Guild president John Gately were dismissed last week; apparently, it’s OK for a cop to call another cop to alert him that he’s about to be served with a search warrant because he’s under suspicion for rape. Good to know.)

But this? A mere request to help the city understand the truth behind what happened with Straub and City Hall’s inept handling of his departure?

Mum’s the word.

Lt. Dave McCabe, the president of the police Lieutenants and Captains Association, has said he was interviewed, but understands if others won’t participate because he doesn’t have faith in the investigation or believe it is fair to potential witnesses. See, he filed a complaint in the case earlier, and was unhappy with the way it was handled. This is the leader of the cops’ middle managers, Spokane. His rationale will come as a refreshing example for lazy, unwilling witnesses everywhere, who also lack faith in investigations and therefore might not want to help the community by sharing what they know.

Meanwhile, the legal eagles are sitting silent, as well. City Attorney Nancy Isserlis hasn’t decided if she will participate. And an assistant city attorney who apparently was warned about Straub’s behavior way back in 2014 is refusing to be interviewed.

That’s right: At this point, the person who received what appear to be the earliest complaints about Straub, and whose actions represent the city’s earliest response to those complaints – allegedly offering the complainant early retirement – is going to be AWOL in the investigation.

So forgive me if I find the assertions of the investigator, former federal prosecutor Kris Cappel, to be so very weak. Cappel issued a statement Monday, saying the investigation is just going gangbusters, and that the blame for witnesses refusing to cooperate falls to the nosy media and a pending lawsuit filed by Straub. She said that because of the media and the lawsuit, it’s somewhat understandable that people would refuse to participate.

Here’s Cappel’s conclusion about the refusals to cooperate in the city attorney’s office: “Witnesses in the City Attorney’s office have also chosen not to participate. We are unable at this point to determine the impact on our ability to reach meaningful factual findings without their participation. Again, at this stage of the investigation, based on information available to us, we draw no adverse inferences regarding their decisions not to participate.”

Sounds like a real bulldog.

At this point, there are a couple of foreseeable outcomes. The first is that we keep on driving down this road, producing an investigation that is inadequate to the task at hand – given that it will lack the testimony of key parties. This will deepen, not resolve, the problem.

Or someone at City Hall can decide this is unacceptable and change it.

The someone with the most ability, and responsibility, for changing it is Mayor David Condon. Though he has said he will be interviewed, attorney in tow, he has set a blasé example in several ways: by emphasizing to city employees that they do not have to participate and by threatening, through a city lawyer, the City Council and Parks Board with suggestions of legal liability if they testify about what Condon and City Administrator Theresa Sanders told them in closed-door executive sessions. (The good news is that several members of the council say they have told the investigator what happened.)

What could the mayor do to get people talking? He could, in essence, force them, applying the so-called Garrity rule, in which public employees can be compelled to testify but are given immunity from criminal prosecution. This would no longer apply to Straub and Cotton, obviously, but would apply to everyone else.

Short of that, there is the City Council, which has subpoena authority. The council could issue a bunch of subpoenas – which would surely be, as Council President Ben Stuckart says, a media circus – the avoidance of which has seemed like the top priority at City Hall.

That would be time-consuming and excessive and messy.

And preferable to what’s happening now.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.