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Memo on legal work in RPS case surfaces

It cites attorney’s ‘political cover’ concern

A lawyer with the state attorney general’s office who provided a legal review of an investigation into a fatal 2006 River Park Square garage crash believed his review was being used “for political cover,” according to a memo written by David Savage, the ex-husband of the woman who died in the incident.

In the memo to himself, Savage, an attorney who worked on the civil case against River Park Square, discusses details of a phone call between him and Scott Marlow, the lawyer who handled the examination for the attorney general’s office.

Savage’s memo indicates that Marlow felt Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker’s office had done a substandard job in preparing the case for review by the state. Savage’s memo is dated March 26, 2009. It said Marlow told him: “This matter needed a more thorough review and robust development … I do not understand why this matter has not been better handled.”

Cowles Co. owns River Park Square and The Spokesman-Review.

Dan Sytman, spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, said Thursday that Marlow called Savage to express sympathy related to the incident and did not intend to convey that he had concerns about providing “political cover.”

A state review of a county prosecutor’s case “is appropriate when a prosecutor wants to make sure he or she is covering the bases. That’s what Scott articulated in that conversation,” Sytman said.

The memo was mailed to The Spokesman-Review last month by former Pend Oreille County Sheriff Tony Bamonte, who has argued that the crash should have sparked manslaughter charges against Cowles Co. officials. Jo Ellen Savage died April 8, 2006, after her car crashed through a wall and fell onto the entry ramp below. Witnesses told police she was driving slowly.

In 1993, engineer Richard Atwood warned River Park Square officials of problems in the walls. He recommended the garage install cables to prevent cars from hitting barriers or that the owners conduct more extensive tests. Neither action was taken, though mall officials say they made other improvements and conducted other tests.

Cowles Co.’s insurers settled the civil case in 2006 for $1.6 million, Savage said.

Tucker asked the state if manslaughter charges were applicable in February 2009, about two months before the statute of limitations ran out. He was given files related to Jo Ellen Savage’s death in September 2008 by federal investigators, who determined that federal charges did not apply.

Tucker said Thursday that no one from the Attorney General’s Office has expressed concerns to him about the review. He added that before the state examination, files were reviewed by his chief deputy criminal prosecutor, who agreed that charges shouldn’t be pursued.

“It would have been a battle of experts and there still wouldn’t have been enough to show negligence,” Tucker said.

Savage, a former president of the Washington State Bar Association, said Thursday that he stands by “my recollection of that conversation and (Marlow’s) remarks as I recorded them at the time.”

Savage said he, Robert Rembert, an attorney who worked with Savage on the civil case, and Savage’s wife, Sally Savage, a former senior assistant with the Washington attorney general’s office, met with Tucker in November 2008 about the case because they strongly believed that the details uncovered in the civil investigation pointed to criminal negligence. At that time, Savage said Tucker indicated that he had not started reviewing the case even though he had the file for two months.

Because of the delay and an incomplete investigation, Savage said Thursday, “the A.G.’s office – Marlow in particular – couldn’t render an opinion based upon a full, fair and robust development of the case.”

Tucker said the two boxes of information provided by federal investigators were thorough. Savage said he is concerned that metal plates and bars added by the mall in 2006 to strengthen the garage’s walls may not be adequate to make the garage safe.

“We felt criminal prosecution would have compelled a more thorough review of the integrity and safety of the building,” Savage said.

River Park Square spokeswoman Jennifer West said Thursday that the mall is confident that the fixes ensure safety to garage users.

“It has been inspected by both the city and independent experts they engaged,” West said in a written statement. “The safety of its customers is a priority.”

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