Mayor David Condon won’t hire an additional attorney in the ongoing investigation into his firing last year of the police chief, a decision that could provoke the Spokane City Council to subpoena witnesses.
Condon announced his decision in a strongly worded letter to the council and media Tuesday evening. It answered the council’s request to hire the attorney, which was made in a vote last month.
Condon accused Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart of politicizing the investigation and said he would not authorize the release of materials “that may compromise the City’s ability to defend itself.”
“By demanding the release of attorney-client privileged documents, Council President Stuckart places his political agenda above the public interest,” Condon wrote in the letter.
Stuckart, in turn, accused Condon of concealing information and said the hiring of attorney Mike Harrington would be the only way to get to the truth behind Straub’s ouster.
Straub had been accused of sexually harassing his spokeswoman, Monique Cotton, and of launching into tirades that some of his top administrators said crossed the line to abusive management. Cotton was hurriedly transferred to the parks department, something she demanded with the backing of an attorney. City officials denied for months any troubles between Straub and Cotton, though the mayor knew of the allegations in April.
After negotiations between Condon and City Council members late last year, the city hired investigator Kris Cappel to examine the city’s handling of accusations against Straub and his firing.
But now those same leaders say information that could be essential to the investigation – namely conversations and correspondence that included city attorneys – is privileged and doesn’t have to be released to the investigator. They argue that if they did provide it to Cappel and the public, it could prove beneficial to multiple parties currently suing the city, including Straub.
The City Council plan rejected by Condon was meant to allow the investigator to examine the privileged information while still keeping it from the public and the parties suing the city.
The council voted on May 23 to ask Condon to hire the additional attorney, at a cost of roughly $20,000.
Condon’s letter noted that Stuckart had asked to meet with him about the proposal, but the mayor says such a meeting would be “unnecessary and belated.”
Stuckart said in an interview Tuesday, “I don’t understand how asking for a meeting and trying to talk this through is political.”
Condon’s letter included an email he said he obtained through a public records request targeting Stuckart and his staffers.
Condon said the email “revealed that Council President Stuckart and former Councilman Jon Snyder used their private campaign emails to develop the City Council’s initial letter demanding answers on the Straub matter” back in November.
He added, “It appears this was done to circumvent the public records process.”
Stuckart denied any wrongdoing and said the letter was probably sent accidentally to his campaign email address.
“The discussion in that email was the letter we sent to the mayor the following Monday,” Stuckart said. “There was nothing nefarious about it.”
Councilman Breean Beggs proposed Harrington’s assistance as a way for Cappel to review potentially sensitive information without releasing it to the public, and by extension Straub, who has filed a $4 million claim against Spokane and sued in federal court.
Condon called the potential costs of releasing attorney-client privileged information “unacceptable.” He also cited an agreement not to speak about the investigation outside of a joint committee between his office and the City Council as the reason he remained silent on the proposal.
“However, at this juncture my obligations as a City fiduciary outweigh my commitment to only speak through the Joint Committee,” Condon wrote.
Stuckart said he plans to continue to block additional spending on defending the city in the civil lawsuit. On the City Council agenda Monday is a request for approval of an additional $136,600 to the firm of Etter, McMahon, Lamberson, VanWert & Oreskovich for legal services.
“I’m not paying for more lawyers to defend the city when they’re refusing to release all the documents. That’s silly,” Stuckart said.
Stuckart implied that Condon’s rejection of the City Council’s proposal could force the panel to use its subpoena powers in the case to compel testimony from those who won’t speak with Cappel.
“This sure pushes us toward using our power of subpoena,” Stuckart said. “I’ve been hesitant to draw up the documents. That seems pretty last resort.”
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