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Spokane City Council President Stuckart fined for ethics violation

Ben Stuckart: “I broke the rule, but no harm was caused.”
Ben Stuckart: “I broke the rule, but no harm was caused.”

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart was fined $250 by the city’s ethics committee this week for improperly sharing a confidential email dealing with a lawsuit.

In a unanimous decision, the committee agreed with City Attorney Nancy Isserlis that Stuckart had violated the ethics code but could not find any evidence that his actions hurt the city.

“Certainly there was a potential for harm to be done to the city,” said Troy Bruner, the committee’s chairman. “We had no evidence that harm was done, so we figured that the penalty should be minimal.”

Bruner said the matter was closed but noted the committee will write a “strongly worded statement showing our disapproval of his actions and admonishing him.”

Stuckart, who publicly apologized for his actions, said he regretted forwarding the email.

“I broke the rule, but no harm was caused,” he said.

Mayor David Condon said he appreciated the committee’s decision.

“I am disappointed by this admitted breach of public trust by the Council President,” he said in a statement. “As elected officials, we are stewards tasked with protecting citizen interests. Divulging privileged confidential information during active litigation compromises that ability. I appreciate that the Ethics Committee acted decisively to send a message that such behavior is unethical and will not be tolerated.”

The ethics violation came to light when Isserlis was performing an investigation about an alleged city code violation at the request of Don Waller, president of Local 29, the city’s fire union.

During this investigation, she “inadvertently” found an email Stuckart had forwarded to Waller written by Erin Jacobson, an attorney with the city. Jacobson’s email dealt with pending litigation against the city by the fire union regarding the mayor’s plan to create departments within a fire division. The mayor’s move would have allowed him to appoint people to positions instead of having them go through a civil service process leading to union-protected jobs.

Jacobson’s email was sent to the mayor and council members with the subject line “ATTORNEY-CLIENT PRIVILEGED Appeal Decision.”

“Within twenty minutes of receipt of Ms. Jacobson’s email, Council President Stuckart forwarded the email, in its entirety, to Mr. Waller at his personal email address,” Isserlis wrote in her referral. “I believe Mr. Stuckart was aware he was forwarding confidential information to the party opposing the City in pending litigation.”

In his defense to the ethics committee, Stuckart said the information in the email was already public knowledge, but there is no way to confirm this as the email has been redacted and even ethics committee members don’t know its contents.

Stuckart also argued that the point was largely moot because the City Council had rescinded the fire department’s reorganization.

Bruner rejected Stuckart’s claims, saying they “weren’t convincing to us.”

“He said the email wasn’t bad because its contents were public knowledge. There was no way for us to know that,” he said. “He said you should be able to dismiss this because there was no harm to the city. We had no way to know if there was harm done to the city.”

Mike Piccolo, a city attorney who advises the City Council and was present at the ethics hearing, said the committee’s difficulty in identifying harm led to questions over how to impose any monetary penalties. 

Stuckart and the committee agreed to a “stipulation,” which means that by admitting fault, Stuckart could avoid a full-blown committee hearing and possible investigation. The stipulation, however, required a fine, which ended up being determined by Stuckart.

“It took about an hour. They decided I had violated the ethics code, but I hadn’t harmed the city, and they fined me $250,” Stuckart said. “I suggested the $250.”

Bruner said he was convinced that the matter had been resolved, even though he had an unanswered question.

“One personal observation I have, President Stuckart really wasn’t able to provide a compelling reason why he forwarded the email in the first place. That’s something I still don’t have an answer for,” he said. “But he was apologetic for his behavior and he did affirm that he would not engage with such disclosures in the future.”

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