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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Mayor tried to hide police issue – the opposite of transparency

Way back in late 2011, David Condon held his first press conference as mayor-elect.

He emphasized that his administration would be … see if you can guess what his administration was going to be. Transparent and accountable! Transparency and accountability are qualities that all politicians and administrators say they value these days, because they are aware that – though they have no intention of being transparent or accountable – it’s important to pretend to be.

It’s almost amusing to remember that happy, fresh-faced pretense in light of the most recent revelations about the Condon administration’s strenuous and dishonest attempts to cover up a sexual harassment complaint against police Chief Frank Straub. Because it is clear that Condon and his administration spent months trying to manage and massage and hide the truth – and then, when it was clear that some of it was going to come out, they delayed the release of the most damning information until after his election.

Smells like a fridge full of spoiled food.

Condon knew in April that a high-profile police spokeswoman had complained she’d been sexually harassed by Straub. Condon and his administration then gave the woman, Monique Cotton, a new job and a raise and told fibs about why. Called out for lying, city administrator Theresa Sanders defended herself in a revealing way: Her mistake, she said, was talking to the media.

Because, I guess, when you talk to the media, you’re naturally going to lie to the media. Problem is, lots of other people in the city are feeling lied to as well.

When Condon decided to force Straub to resign as police chief and take a job he created for him in the city attorney’s office in September, as he was facing the imminent public release of internal records in the case, he was asked if there had been any sexual harassment complaints filed against Straub.

He said, “No.”

That was a technical truth quacking like a lie. No formal complaint was filed, but the mayor had long since assigned an investigation into Cotton’s assertion that Straub had inappropriately touched and talked to her, and taken steps to prevent her from filing a claim against the city.

And now, guess what? The mayor of transparency and accountability – the guy who ran on a promise of cleaning up the police department – isn’t answering any questions. His spokesman, Brian Coddington said, “The records speak for themselves.”

Boy, do they. And what they say is this: Faced with a credible accusation of sexual harassment against the police chief he hired to restore credibility to the department, Condon attempted to hide it – to pay the victim and leave the alleged offender right where he was, supervising other women.

From the first moment, this situation was about secrecy. It started with the way that Cotton approached the city, urgently asking for complete confidentiality as well as hanging the possibility of legal action out there if she didn’t get it.

It proceeded with the botched attempt to slide her into a new job, with a raise and a fake rationale that immediately raised eyebrows and set a grass fire of rumors. It got a little extra disgusting when Cotton’s attorney – professional city sue-er Bob Dunn – engaged in an email negotiation with city attorney Nancy Isserlis in which he dangled a threat of negative publicity over her head as leverage to get paid.

Meanwhile, Condon’s police chief stayed on the job, and Condon marched toward re-election.

Is there any reason to think that Condon’s intention was not to leave it at that? If it hadn’t been for pesky reporters – primarily my colleague, Nick Deshais – it seems very likely that would have been the end of it.

But Deshais began asking questions, and he filed a series of extensive public records requests at the end of August, asking for emails, text messages, meeting notes and any other documents related to the case.

Within a month, as city officials gathered records and began preparing them for release, Condon suddenly fired Straub, citing complaints about him berating his middle managers and denying there had been a sexual harassment complaint.

The city, meanwhile, worked to gather the public records – just worked and worked and worked. September turned into October. Still working. Days before the election, 10 weeks after the filing of the requests, Isserlis said she would need more time to review the documents. Just a little more time. The records were released three weeks after Election Day.

Pretty transparent, after all.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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