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Federal judge: Spokane’s handling of former police Chief Frank Straub’s dismissal ‘a hot mess’

UPDATED: Sat., June 9, 2018, 10:14 p.m.

FILE – Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub answers questions about the arrest of murder suspect Timothy E. Suckow during a press briefing, Jan. 14, 2014 at the Public Saftey Building. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE – Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub answers questions about the arrest of murder suspect Timothy E. Suckow during a press briefing, Jan. 14, 2014 at the Public Saftey Building. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A federal judge on Friday called the handling by city officials of former Spokane police Chief Frank Straub’s dismissal in 2015 “a hot mess.”

“The city made a huge mess out of this whole thing,” Judge Jay Bybee said in a hearing in Seattle, addressing the attorney representing the city in the ongoing wrongful termination lawsuit brought by Straub. “There’s all kinds of misdirection and indirection here in the way that the city handled this.”

Straub’s attorney, Mary Schultz, continued the argument Friday that Straub had been defamed on his way out of office by the city, which released letters from police brass at a news conference announcing his departure that accused the chief of abusive behavior. The dismissal prompted not just Straub’s lawsuit, but also an internal investigation into the handling of the case by the city’s human resources department and multiple ethics complaints against Mayor David Condon, all of which have been dismissed or settled.

In May 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice ruled against Straub, finding that his dismissal was a voluntary resignation and thus the former chief couldn’t bring a civil rights lawsuit against the city. That ruling was appealed to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which prompted Friday’s hearing before a three-member panel of the court.

Schultz argued Friday that an offer by the city to clear Straub’s name wasn’t made in earnest by the city after removing him as chief, and thus didn’t meet legal obligations by the city to allow him to defend himself.

But the trio of judges, including Bybee, told Schultz that Straub had multiple written offers from the city to begin the process of holding a hearing, all of which were not taken up by Schultz.

“When you cut it off at the knees, counsel, I don’t know how you can complain about the lack of process,” Bybee said.

But the judge was also scathing in his criticism of the city’s decision to publicly release the letters without allowing Straub to rebut the allegations.

“You could have simply fired the chief of police. You could have removed him. You could have told him his contract wasn’t going to be renewed at the end of the year,” Bybee said. “There were a half a dozen things that you could have done. But what you don’t get to do is kick him in the pants on the way out the door, and slander him in front of the whole city.”

John S. Spencer, the lawyer representing former City Attorney Nancy Isserlis – who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit – responded that the allegations had come from multiple high-ranking members of the police department and that Straub willingly took a position in the city attorney’s office, where he worked for months before leaving city employment at the end of 2015.

“One of the things that’s important for the city to be able to do is communicate to the constituency the reason the change is being made,” Spencer said. “This is not just some malicious comment being made by one person.”

The judges did not rule on the oral arguments Friday. Straub’s initial tort claim that spawned the lawsuit requested $4 million in damages.