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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Why Verner lost: Part 3: Otto Zehm

It’s hard to imagine how Mayor Mary Verner could have lost so much ground between the primary and the November election without concerns about the Otto Zehm case eating at her base.

With some members of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane expressing the possibility of sitting out the election or even casting a vote for a Republican who served a conservative member of Congress, it became clear that Verner had a problem, a problem that became more pronounced when Tom Keefe, a former Spokane County Democratic Party chair endorsed now Mayor-elect David Condon.

There were two key questions that Verner would not answer, at least completely, for most of the campaign:

- Why did the city file a response to the lawsuit from Otto Zehm’s family indicating that officers followed proper police policies when they confronted Otto Zehm, who died from injuries he suffered in that confrontation, even though the man who led the department at the time of the confrontation, Assistant Chief Jim Nicks, felt differently?

- Was she informed about the request by Department of Justice officials to meet regarding their concerns about the behavior of the city attorney’s office?

After the now infamous “FAQ” news conference that was overshadowed by Councilman Bob Apple, Verner had what may have been her worst few weeks as mayor, including a ‘60-Minutes’-style, chase-down-the-sidewalk-while-the-politician-refuses-to-answer-questions segment that ran on KREM-TV, fresh with a moment when she put a hand over the camera complaining of the bright camera light.

Even after the verdict against Thompson, Verner declined to shed too much light on why the city responded to the lawsuit in the way it did beyond explaining the complicated nature of the case, the halt to the civil case that was ordered a few months after the city filed its response to the suit and stressing that answers to the question likely will be revealed in the investigation she has promised.

Verner has shed more light into the second question. When shown in August a copy of an email from Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Durkin requesting to meet she said she had never seen the email. Later when asked at the KSPS debate if concerns expressed in 2009 by the U.S. Attorney’s Office were explained to her by the city attorney’s office, she signaled that she was only recently briefed about them.

“Certainly they have been brought to my attention recently, those comments by the U.S. Attorney. And you recall they are comments by attorneys on both sides,” she said. “It was brought to my attention this year that those remarks had been made. Of course it concerns me and of course I’m eager to have all the litigation concluded.”

The mayor’s campaign first accused Condon of using “the tragedy of the Otto Zehm death for his personal political ambition.” But that argument from the Verner campaign and similar ones from the Inland Northwest Leadership Political Action Committee, which supported Verner, were undermined when the attorney representing the Zehm family said family members were not offended by Condon bringing up the issue.

Verner also has said she was extremely limited in what she could say and do about the case because she wanted to ensure Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr., who was convicted of two felonies related to the confrontation with Zehm, received a fair trail.

“She could have chosen to augment her political capital by joining in the public condemnation of Officer Thompson,” Democratic Party Chairman David Smith said in a prepared statement last month. “Instead, despite her professed grief for the family of Otto Zehm, she chose to accept the political risk inherent in standing up for Officer Thompson's right to a fair trial. Doing so took courage. Standing up for the Constitution always does.”

Others, including Condon, argued that issues including whether the city attorney’s office properly kept city leaders informed in a timely way about the case, could have been better explained without hurting Thompson’s chance for a fair trial.

Condon has expressed support for moving forward with an independent examination of the case. More answers may be forthcoming.

Jonathan Brunt
Jonathan Brunt joined The Spokesman-Review in 2004. He is the government editor. He previously was a reporter who covered Spokane City Hall, Spokane County government and public safety.

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