One troubling question has been answered. Another has been raised.
Question 1: How could the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office destroy the records of an investigation into allegations that a deputy, who subsequently committed suicide, had molested children in his Boy Scout troop?
That unpleasant episode is not the sort of thing a public agency can or should just erase from its institutional memory.
Yet two years ago, when asked for the records by a Spokesman-Review reporter working on a story, representatives of the Sheriff’s Office said the documents were shredded after Deputy David Hahn, the subject of the child-molestation probe, shot himself to death.
That was the formal response, but it wasn’t true. The real answer came forth last week.
On April 21, a manila folder with “Hahn” scrawled on it was discovered in a storage closet at the Spokane City-County Public Safety Building. In it were the missing records. Sheriff Mark Sterk explained that the file was placed in that storage closet after having been moved from another that was being cleaned out.
It’s a relief to have the mystery solved, even if the explanation is sloppy records management. Now that they’ve been located, the documents may hold answers that will shed light on such matters as the lawsuits filed by Hahn’s alleged victims and the ongoing look into accusations by those plaintiffs that Hahn’s friend and fellow deputy, Spokane Mayor Jim West, though not a defendant in the suit, engaged in molestation, too.
The new question, then, is how could the Sheriff’s Office have been so mistaken about the existence of the Hahn records? What information – faulty memory? official documentation? department policy? – led officials to state with certainty that a shredding had occurred?
One thing does seem clear. Confronted with a request for public records – records that might have proved embarrassing to the department – sheriff’s officials didn’t search as diligently as they should have to find what was sitting in a storage closet. Instead, they explained the absence of documentation by saying it had been destroyed.
Those records, like the records maintained by other public agencies, belong to the people. The agencies themselves are only stewards, authorized to exercise minimal controls over official documents but obliged to make them as accessible as reasonably possible to the public, including but not limited to the press and to citizens who believe they have claims to press against the government.
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