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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Stuckart: Mayor Condon lied about sexual harassment claim

Spokane Mayor David Condon, left, with City Council President Ben Stuckart, at a news conference in September 2015. Condon vetoed last week a set of laws governing political contributions at the local level, pushed by Stuckart. The City Council will consider overriding that veto Monday. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart said he is “severely disappointed” in Mayor David Condon for the handling of allegations of sexual harassment against former police Chief Frank Straub, saying he can’t trust Condon or members of his Cabinet after being “lied to.”

Stuckart is “working on a draft of a letter with a very long list of questions” for Condon. Some of those questions raise concerns about the timing of records released this week that show that Condon knew in April the police chief had been accused of harassment.

If the mayor doesn’t sufficiently answer the questions, Stuckart said he’s considering an independent investigation by the City Council into the actions of the mayor and city administration.

“When did they know they had these documents and why are they being released now and not when the records request went out?” Stuckart said of requests made by The Spokesman-Review on Aug. 21, which were filled Tuesday. “They took over three months to produce these documents, which they obviously knew they had.”

The accusations of sexual harassment came from former police spokesman Monique Cotton, who told Condon and City Administrator Theresa Sanders in April that Straub had “grabbed her ass, tried to kiss her.” Cotton was hurriedly transferred to the parks department following the accusations.

Since then, the city’s reasoning for the transfer has changed as information has slowly come out of City Hall. First, her transfer was described as an advancement that required an “enticement” of a $10,000 pay raise to persuade Cotton to move. Now, Condon describes the secrecy that surrounded the transfer as a way to protect Cotton and honor her request for privacy.

“Ms. Cotton raised concerns in April and made it very clear at that time that she did not want to pursue a formal complaint or investigation,” Condon said in a statement. “Had we aired this publicly sooner that would have meant going back on my word to Ms. Cotton and bringing more hurt and stress to an already difficult situation.”

Brian Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman, said Sanders investigated Cotton’s allegations but produced “no written report or findings.”

“There was no discipline from it,” Coddington said of the investigation.

According to the city’s policies, when a supervisor is notified of alleged sexual harassment, they must follow a prescribed set of steps. First, they must document and report the incident to the department head, investigate the complaint, take “appropriate corrective action,” forward the results of the investigation to the Human Resources department and provide official findings to the victim.

Mary Schultz, Straub’s attorney, said Straub “absolutely” denies sexually harassing Cotton.

“Mayor Condon assures us that he will continue to protect the feelings of an accuser who won’t allow their claims to be investigated, and throw our city police chief under the bus instead,” Schultz said in an email. “And he will continue to extend this same opportunity to any police department employee who approaches him with similar accusations. So everyone just line up. Now that’s the kind of leadership Spokane needs.”

Condon forced Straub to resign in late September, saying the Lieutenants and Captains Association had raised questions about his leadership. Straub filed a $4 million claim for violation of due process.

The mayor’s reasoning – trying to avoid hurting Cotton – did not calm Stuckart, who said he was “lied to” by Sanders in the moments before the Sept. 22 news conference announcing Straub’s forced resignation.

“I asked her point-blank, is there anything that’s going to come out in a public records request that’s going to bite us? She said no,” Stuckart said. At that news conference, Condon told reporters there were no complaints of sexual harassment lodged against Straub.

“Why did the mayor lie in the press conference? Why did Theresa lie to me?” Stuckart said. Earlier this month, the city’s Ethics Commission ruled that Sanders violated the city’s ethics code by lying about the reason for Cotton’s transfer.

Stuckart has called for Straub’s immediate resignation. After being removed from his post leading the police department, Straub was moved to the city attorney’s office, where he is “producing work,” according to Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman. Straub remains on the city’s payroll as the highest-paid employee, at nearly $180,000 a year.

“He’s providing resources and continuity to some of the criminal justice work,” Coddington said. “He’s reporting to Gloria Ochoa. He produced a report within the last 10 days.”

Coddington did not provide the report when it was requested.

Stuckart, the only official elected citywide in Spokane other than the mayor, also suggested there were “political calculations” to not only the timing of the release of documents but also why Condon kept Straub in office after hearing of the sexual harassment allegations in April.

“April was before the filing deadline,” Stuckart said, referring to a deadline Condon’s potential opponents faced if they chose to run against him. Stuckart considered challenging Condon, but decided against it. Democratic state Rep. Marcus Riccelli also considered a run. Instead, political newcomer Shar Lichty ran against Condon with little institutional support and poor results.

“The public deserved to know this in April, not now,” Stuckart said. “These documents were released after the election for a reason.”

Bob Dunn, Cotton’s attorney, acknowledged that Cotton wanted the situation kept out of public view.

“Monique has not wanted to be above the radar. The marching orders that I’ve had from April was to keep this off the front page and to make sure that we got this resolved without her being in the limelight,” Dunn said. “I respected that. It’s not necessarily the way I thought it should go down.”

Dunn said he counseled Cotton against such an approach, to no avail.

“There are leaks over at City Hall like a dike. You can put a finger in an information hole, but it’s going to pop out someplace,” he said. “She felt that if she went to the right people and dealt with it quietly and low-key, it would just go away.”

Dunn said the city has yet to “reimburse” Cotton for legal and counseling fees, which he said amount to $13,276. He said he has been “hamstrung” in pursuing the fees because Cotton does not want to file a claim against the city, which is a public document.

“I’m like a chained dog,” Dunn said. “I think there’s a lot more to talk about, but right now I’m hamstrung. I know she’s got more of a story to tell. My view is that she needs to tell her story.”