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Shawn Vestal: Zehm case demands city’s focus

Never mind.

The city of Spokane did a little double-checking Friday, and acknowledged that its explanation three weeks ago of a key question in the Otto Zehm case was wrong: City attorneys never met with federal prosecutors after a June 2009 request to discuss concerns over the city legal staff’s actions. A cynic might say this is simply par for the course in the Zehm case – the truth comes out, but only after the city gives it a second or third try.

Sounds like the case mantra: Never mind.

The latest issue relates to nagging questions that federal prosecutors raised over whether the city’s attorneys had conflicts of interest in representing Officer Karl Thompson in the criminal case and the city itself in a civil lawsuit. City Attorneys Rocky Treppiedi and Howard Delaney have argued in the civil case that Thompson is innocent – even as key members of the Police Department are preparing to testify in the criminal case that he used excessive force in the March 2006 incident that led to Zehm’s death.

It’s hard to see how, on its face, that doesn’t represent a conflict of interest. Beyond that, though, federal prosecutors have expressed ethical concerns over Treppiedi’s handling of grand jury information and other matters – so much so that they attempted to contact Mayor Mary Verner and other city leaders in June 2009 to discuss the concerns.

It’s unclear whether this request made it to Verner, but no such meeting ever took place.

Still, the mayor has attempted to finesse this matter, arguing that city attorneys themselves met with federal prosecutors in response to the request. On Sept. 9, as the community’s outrage over the Zehm case grew, Verner held a news conference in which she took no questions, made a few mollifying statements, promised a thorough review of the case, and handed out a sheet of FAQs.

One of the FAQs was, “Why didn’t City elected officials meet with the U.S. Attorney in 2009?”

The answer was: “Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Durkin did request to meet with the Mayor, Council President, and Police Chief to discuss potential conflict of interest questions. It is highly unusual for an attorney to meet with another attorney’s clients. However, City Attorney Howard Delaney and Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi did meet with the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a result of this request. They met with the U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington at the time, Jim McDevitt, along with Mr. Durkin and other representatives of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The City responded to the concerns in a court filing two years ago. The court found no issues of conflict or impropriety on the part of the city.”

There is more than one problem with that answer, but one very big one: That meeting never occurred. In court papers filed recently, Durkin referred to the FAQs as “patently false,” and cited the claim about the meeting in particular.

On Friday, city spokeswoman Marlene Feist acknowledged the error, saying Delaney had mixed up two meetings in preparing that answer.

“We probably didn’t word that as well as we should have, and got a couple things confused,” Feist said. “Is our FAQ poorly written? Yes. Did we mix up some dates? OK, we did. Was it meant to do anything other than get accurate information out to the public? No.”

Feist said Delaney and Treppiedi met with Durkin, McDevitt and others in March 2009 to discuss conflict-of-interest questions. It was three months later when Durkin sought a meeting with Verner and others – essentially trying to take the concerns up the ladder of responsibility.

Feist released an email exchange between Delaney and McDevitt in June 2009 that refers to efforts to set up a meeting with city officials to update them on the criminal case. In these communications, Delaney makes it clear that the conflict-of-interest questions would not be discussed. Delaney assures McDevitt that he himself was reviewing the “five or six issues” raised by Durkin, and he’d be in touch in the “very near future” to set up a meeting.

Another meeting that never happened.

A conspiratorial view of this case is not difficult to formulate, and yet another factually challenged public statement from City Hall doesn’t help. Feist insists it was an honest mistake, based on a busy time from two years ago and not meant to mislead anyone – a mistake that the city is now trying to set straight.

Thompson’s criminal trial is about to begin. Then there’ll be the Zehm family’s multimillion-dollar claim against the city to be adjudicated. Then the mayor’s promised internal and external reviews to be undergone.

There are many, many questions to be resolved in the case. Let’s hope there’s one answer we don’t have to hear too much more: Never mind.

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