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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Condon fires city attorney

Nancy Isserlis in 2012. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Thomas Clouse and Jonathan Brunt The Spokesman-Review

In the biggest shakeup of his administration yet, Spokane Mayor David Condon on Thursday fired City Attorney Howard Delaney following worsening criticism of the legal office’s handling of a series of high-profile cases.

Condon informed Delaney Thursday morning, said city spokeswoman Marlene Feist, who also announced the appointment of new City Attorney Nancy Isserlis, a former chairwoman of the city’s Ethics Commission.

The move comes three days after an angry Spokane City Council unanimously rejected a proposed settlement for fired Spokane Police Sgt. Brad Thoma, who was terminated in 2009 after an off-duty drunken driving and hit-and-run incident. Thoma protested his firing by claiming that the city was discriminating against him for being an alcoholic. The settlement, which was negotiated by Delaney’s staff, proposed the city rehire Thoma and give him $275,000 in back pay.

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart said given the change in administrations and controversy around police accountability, the time is right for new leadership for the legal department.

“I’m excited to start a new page,” Stuckart said. “This will be a good move for the city in the long run.”

Stuckart, however, defended the legal department’s work on the Thoma case. He noted that the proposed settlement had been mediated by the state Human Rights Commission. Stuckart and five other City Council members rejected the deal and Thoma has since filed a lawsuit.

Feist said the change was not about any “single issue.”

“The mayor was looking for new leadership in the city attorney’s office,” she said. “Nancy Isserlis is the fit he’s looking for.”

Delaney was the city prosecutor in 2008 when then-Mayor Mary Verner hired him to lead the city’s legal team.

Under Delaney’s leadership, the city created an independent municipal court. That decision was spurred by a lawsuit but was also done in an effort to cut costs and implement programs for alternatives to jail sentences.

But the legal department has come under intense scrutiny over its handling of the case involving Otto Zehm, a 36-year-old mentally ill janitor who died two days after a 2006 confrontation in which he was beaten with a baton, shocked with a Taser and hogtied in a North Spokane convenience store. The city’s position, based largely on the advice of its legal team, has been that officers did nothing wrong, even though the acting chief of the department had concluded otherwise.

Former Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. was convicted by a federal jury in November of using excessive force and lying to investigators.

In the aftermath of Thompson’s conviction, the U.S. Department of Justice accused the city of participating in an extensive cover-up to protect officers involved in the confrontation. Federal officials are expected to rule soon whether they will embark on what’s known as a pattern and practice investigation of the entire department.

Feist said the future of Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi will be determined by Isserlis. Under the City Charter, the city attorney, not the mayor, makes hiring and firing decisions regarding assistant city attorneys. Treppiedi helped lead the city’s legal response to the Zehm case and was accused by federal prosecutors of interfering in the FBI investigation by passing information gleaned from the civil case to help Thompson’s criminal defense.

The city continues to negotiate a settlement to the civil suit brought by the mother and estate of Zehm. Jeffry Finer, who is representing both, said he does not believe Delaney’s ouster will slow the process to select a mediator to help resolve the case.

“I think all the parties are still moving forward,” Finer said. “I wish Mr. Delaney good fortune and the best of luck.”

Efforts to reach Delaney, who earned $150,591 last year, were not immediately successful. Isserlis did not return a message at her office, and Condon was not available to make a comment due to social commitments, Feist said.

In November, after Condon won the election, Delaney attended a press conference where he said he was looking forward to helping Condon’s transition.

Asked about his future with the city, Delaney said at that time that he believed his tenure leading the city attorney’s office “has been a positive one.”

Spokane attorney Bob Dunn recently won a $1.55 million judgment against the city for its handling of Officer Jay Mehring. Dunn also has another suit pending for fired Detective Jeff Harvey and this week filed a suit on behalf of Thoma, who is seeking $4 million in damages.

Dunn said both Delaney and Isserlis are “fine” attorneys, but said their advice is only good if City Council members choose to accept it.

“Good luck to her,” Dunn said. “I think it’s a really, really tough job to try to give advice to seven people who don’t have a clue what they are doing.”