Records unveil layers of secrecy at Spokane City Hall
Sun., Nov. 29, 2015
They draw the curtains in a room of Spokane City Hall when the cameras roll.
On Sept. 22, reporters were given eight minutes to rush to that room adjacent to the mayor’s office on the seventh floor, where the mayor’s lectern already was set up, and the three flags of country, state and city hung as backdrop for a hastily called news conference about the forced resignation of police Chief Frank Straub.
Unlike those in the room, and the public they would be reporting to, Spokane Mayor David Condon had more than eight minutes to prepare for the day he’d take Straub’s badge because of allegations about the chief’s behavior toward employees. He had more than five months.
With Council President Ben Stuckart at his side and the cameras and voice recorders rolling, Condon said he’d decided it was time to “move in a new direction, change management” in the police department after receiving a letter from the police Lieutenants and Captains Association detailing the “unprofessional and even hostile behavior” that made Straub an ineffective chief.
In fact, Condon heard of even more serious accusations against Straub in April, when the spokeswoman for the police department, Monique Cotton, confronted the mayor and City Administrator Theresa Sanders with allegations of sexual harassment. Cotton told Sanders that the police chief had “grabbed her ass, tried to kiss her.” She said she had text messages to prove it. And she wanted a new job.
Nearly the entire story Condon and his team have told about what happened between Straub and Cotton has unraveled. As the truth has come out, ethics complaints have been filed, elections have been won and Stuckart is close to launching an official investigation into how allegations of sexual harassment were handled by Condon and his top staff.
The “mutual decision” to remove Straub, as Condon described it, was anything but, as Straub has filed a $4 million claim against the city for a violation of due process related to his removal.
Cotton, according to documents released by the city, did not need “an enticement” in the form of a $9,000 pay increase to move to a new job in the parks department, as Sanders said was the case when Cotton’s move was examined by The Spokesman-Review in August. Instead, Cotton demanded the transfer, and hired an aggressive attorney who has won many cases against City Hall to back her in her request.
City Council members, Stuckart among them, have said they were kept in the dark on the matter – much like the public and the media.
But it was more than darkness. In the past few months, Condon, Sanders and Brian Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman, all denied that there were accusations of sexual harassment. In response to a question at the news conference announcing Straub’s removal – a question based on one of many rumors coursing through City Hall at the time – Condon chose his words carefully, saying there were no official complaints of sexual harassment lodged against Straub.
But in handwritten notes jotted down in April, Sanders wrote of Cotton telling her about “sexual harassment” that had left Cotton “too distraught to come to City Hall.”
Sanders assured her the matter would be settled quickly and quietly, and that “the mayor put the matter in my hands to investigate.”
‘Screaming and … beet red’
On March 19, police Lt. Mark Griffiths made 17 phone calls dealing with two different crimes Griffiths was investigating. It was a long day. He filed for an hour of overtime.
Less than two weeks later, on March 31 at 8:05 a.m., Griffiths’ supervisor, Capt. Eric Olsen, popped into his office and told him of “an unpleasant meeting with the chief” happening in Assistant Chief Selby Smith’s office down the hall, according to notes written by Griffiths. The meeting was about Griffiths’ overtime, and Olsen asked him to join.
When Griffiths walked into the meeting, Straub, Smith and Assistant Chief Rick Dobrow sat on one side of Smith’s desk. Griffiths took his place on the other side, flanked by Cotton and Olsen.
Straub was furious, according to notes from Griffiths and Olsen. Though Olsen had approved the overtime, another captain, Dan Torok, did not. With such conflicting information, Straub denied the overtime request, the union got involved and Straub said the ensuing discussions made him look “like an a-hole” by making a contentious decision, according to notes written by Olsen.
Straub’s tough talk quickly evolved into a profanity-laced tirade, and he spread blame for the situation on Griffiths, Olsen and Cotton, according to meeting notes. Straub was “screaming and his face was beet red,” Griffiths wrote. “He seemed to have a hard time speaking due to his emotions.”
“I told him I did not feel that I had to sit here and be yelled at and told him I was leaving,” Griffiths wrote. Straub told him he was “playing the chief card” and ordered him to stay, threatening the three with insubordination.
“Wipe that (expletive) smirk off your face,” he told Griffiths, according to notes.
Straub didn’t reserve his anger for just Griffiths.
“I got laid open,” Olsen wrote in his notes. “Chief was yelling at Monique/Mark/me. Lots of profanities.”
While Straub held court, “Rick said nothing,” Olsen said about Dobrow, who took over the department after Straub’s ouster.
Then Straub turned his ire toward Cotton, his spokeswoman, blaming her for keeping information from him. In vulgar language referencing sodomy, Straub told her that she made him look bad, the meeting notes say.
Cotton was “fighting back from crying” and “twice she motioned with her hands in a ‘time out motion’ and said, ‘Why am I even here?’ ” according to Griffiths’ notes.
“He stormed out of the room and Chief Dobrow followed him out of the office,” Griffiths wrote. “It should be noted in 22 years of police service, I have never been addressed in such a disrespectful and colorful manner by an SPD supervisor, much less the chief of police.”
for confidential handling
of her case
Cotton felt uncomfortable coming to work after the meeting, and worked from home through the beginning of April. In early April, she asked to meet with Condon and Sanders and told them that Straub had “grabbed her ass, tried to kiss her” and that she had text messages showing other examples of sexual harassment.
Condon “put the matter in my hands to investigate,” Sanders wrote. From April 13 to April 16, Cotton and Sanders had a number of conversations – in person, by phone and via text message – in which Cotton pushed Sanders to keep the discussions “in strict confidence.”
She did not want her accusations made public or investigated, Cotton said, but rather relayed them to “give context” to Straub’s explosive behavior in the meeting about Griffiths’ overtime.
“I’m happy to participate in an investigation regarding the way I was berated on 3/31, and other times I was berated,” Cotton texted to Sanders. “However cannot cooperate with an investigation regarding the matters I presented confidentially to the Mayor and you because of the inevitable publicity and disclosures that will impact me and my life in every way – physically, emotionally and professionally.”
In that text, Cotton made two demands: to keep the matter private, and to have her transfer be made to appear like an “advancement; without any hint that it is for any reason other than as a promotion for my past performance.”
“If the city is unable to accommodate my request for confidential assistance along the lines we discussed and to ensure future confidentiality without my privacy and reputation impacted, then I feel I’m left with few options,” Cotton texted.
According to notes handwritten by Sanders, the two women talked by phone and Cotton told her she “cannot be party to a complaint regarding sexual harassment. This person has hurt me enough. I don’t want to be hurt anymore.”
On April 14, Cotton texted Sanders, again reiterating her desire to keep the issue under wraps.
“I’m placing my trust in you to respect the confidential nature of the situation and your assurance it will remain confidential,” Cotton wrote. “I want to make sure I am very clear that I do not want an investigation into harassment and do not feel an investigation into this subject is necessary because I have not filed a claim. I want my reassignment and advancement to be based on merit.”
On April 16, they again talked by phone and Sanders offered her a job in the parks department. Cotton said she’d think about it.
On May 4, Condon announced Cotton’s transfer to parks, saying she was tasked with talking about the upcoming renovations to Riverfront Park, the subject of a bond measure voters overwhelmingly approved months before.
“Telling an engaging story requires someone experienced in bringing a vision to life. Monique has had great success doing that during her time with the Spokane Police Division,” Condon said in a statement at the time.
Cotton was given an annual salary of nearly $90,000, about $9,000 more than she made in 2014 as the police spokeswoman. The police department continues to pay her wages, even though she works in a separate department. She is scheduled to earn $96,000 next year, at which point the parks department will take over her wage.
Lawyer said he feels
like ‘a chained dog’
When Bob Dunn represents you against the city of Spokane, you often win big. He represented Jay Mehring, who sued the city after he was fired due to allegations he threatened to kill his wife during a messy divorce years before, and won $1.55 million. He represented Liane Carlson, who was awarded $226,000 in back pay from the city after a court found that the city violated laws protecting disabled people. He represented former interim police Chief Scott Stephens and won a settlement of $190,000.
Dunn recently represented Ron Wells in a deal in which the city paid $868,000 for about a third of an acre – land that the city sold Wells for $500,000 in 2004.
When Cotton went to Dunn with her story, he told her to “get ahead of the train so you have some ability to steer where this is going,” he said.
Instead, she told him to keep it under wraps.
“She said, ‘I don’t want to be on the front page. I don’t want to be the story. I just want to do my job,’ ” Dunn said. “I respected that. It’s not necessarily the way I thought it should go down. I have handled this case differently than any other case I have handled.”
Instead, Dunn secured a “promise” from City Hall to move Cotton and guard her secret. The city also agreed to pay for Cotton’s counseling bills and attorney’s fees, Dunn said.
“The overall plan was to find a position that she would be insulated from Straub in, doing what she’s trained to do,” Dunn said of the agreement between City Hall and Cotton. “To make sure that she had a letter of recommendation, and to pay her counseling bills and nominal attorneys fees to deal with the issue that Straub caused.”
Almost immediately, Dunn said, city officials “welched on the deal.”
“As employers, they were asked to do just what they were supposed to do under the law,” he said. “You fire the sexual harasser or you insulate the victim from the harasser. You shouldn’t punish the person who was the victim. But they welched on the deal. They didn’t pay her fees and they didn’t pay her counseling fees.”
But it wasn’t for lack of trying.
On June 8, Dunn initiated a series of exchanges with City Attorney Nancy Isserlis about “reimbursing” Cotton more than $13,000. He pressed for payment, saying, “We have examples that the City has routinely generated for law firms, lawyers, mediators, etc. covered by attorney client privilege approved by City Legal.”
Isserlis told him to read the city’s ethics code.
On June 18, Dunn sent Condon and Sanders a hand-delivered letter warning them that he had “absolutely no problem filing tort claims against” the city and included – written in italics – how he’d phrase his “hypothetical claim.”
Dunn set the controversy at Condon’s feet, saying he “knew or should have known about (Straub’s) personal relationship improprieties with female subordinates” before hiring him as police chief. Still, Condon “did absolutely nothing to supervise or monitor (Straub’s) subsequent predatory and sexually inappropriate misconduct and outrageous interactions, including physical and emotional assaults with and against subordinate female city employees.”
In the hypothetical claim, Dunn suggested he would pursue the city for “an amount not less than $500,000” if it did not reimburse him for the agreement.
In her response to Dunn on June 19, Isserlis said the city “immediately accommodated her request for reassignment, and it appears that she is doing well in her new role.” She included a blank claim form for Dunn.
Dunn is still waiting for the city to pay Cotton. He said Cotton has yet to agree to file a claim against the city because it’s a public document.
“I’m like a chained dog,” he said. “I know she’s got more of a story to tell. My view is that she needs to tell her story.”
In August, when The Spokesman-Review began examining Cotton’s transfer, it was clear the move was not a decision welcomed by all.
City Council members questioned the reasons for the move, and the source of Cotton’s pay. Stuckart called the situation “peculiar.” Councilwoman Karen Stratton said she “couldn’t justify” public safety funds being used to pay a parks spokeswoman.
Park board members, including board President Chris Wright, said they were told of the transfer after the fact, and suggested they wanted an open hiring process if Cotton’s position as Riverfront Park spokeswoman was to be permanent. Wright reiterated that desire last week.
In August, park board members still were waiting for an explanation as to why Cotton’s salary was paid by police, something they never received.
At the time, Sanders was unapologetic about the sudden and unexplained transfer, describing it as an example of how she operates as Condon’s second-in-command.
“That’s the way I work. I move quick,” said Sanders, noting that she spoke with parks Director Leroy Eadie before moving Cotton.
She described Cotton’s $9,000 pay increase as necessary to persuade Cotton to move.
“It’s mostly an enticement,” Sanders said. “I was bringing her into an uncertain environment.”
Like Condon had in May, Sanders said the decision to move Cotton came as part of a larger city endeavor to “tell the story” of Riverfront Park. Sanders also said she had no knowledge of problems between Straub and Cotton.
“Not that I’m aware of,” she said in August when asked if there were any difficulties between Straub and Cotton.
A month later, Condon took Straub’s badge, and the explanation for Cotton’s transfer changed.
Rumors of sexual harassment already had begun to swirl throughout City Hall, but Condon stayed on message, saying he had “accepted Frank Straub’s resignation” in a mutually agreed decision. Numerous times, Condon said he’d only heard of “these issues” in the “last several weeks.”
After praising the work of police officers and defending Straub’s efforts to reform the police department, Condon attempted to give the lectern over to Stuckart, who stood by his side.
“I think we’re open for questions,” Stuckart said instead.
Asked if Cotton’s transfer to parks related to Straub’s removal, Condon acknowledged, for the first time, that Cotton’s transfer was about more than her talents as a spokeswoman.
“She definitely was part of this discussion,” Condon said.
Asked if there were any sexual harassment complaints lodged against Straub, Condon quietly and quickly said, “No.”
Asked if there was an inappropriate relationship between Straub and Cotton, Condon again dodged.
“The critical thing is the management style. The issue that you speak of, there have been no official filings of anything,” Condon said.
After the news conference, Coddington responded to the sudden nature of the meeting.
“It may feel sudden to you, but this is something that’s been going on and being discussed,” he said, despite his acknowledgment two days later that the decision to remove Straub came moments before the news conference was announced. “As he talked about, there’s been conversations that have been going on the last couple of weeks.”
Pressed on Cotton’s move, which he continued to describe as career advancement that was only partly motivated by Straub’s alleged explosive behavior, Coddington was asked, “So there was no other factor in her pay increase and her move to parks?”
“No,” Coddington said. “No.”
Privacy cited for misleading information
Coddington also denied that Straub was in danger of losing his job about four hours before Straub lost his job.
Asked twice if Straub was in danger of losing his job that day, or generally in danger of losing his job, Coddington said, “I have not heard of that. I don’t believe that’s accurate.”
Two days after the news conference, on Sept. 24, The Spokesman-Review pressed Sanders and Coddington about their efforts to obscure the truth in the days leading to Straub’s removal as chief.
Coddington argued that, as supervisors, they had a responsibility to guard employee privacy.
“Again, it’s a personnel issue. We’re not going to get into the dealings of a personnel issue, the back and forth. Unfortunately, we just can’t,” he said. “These are people. These are employees. These are discussions that need to go on. Out of respect for everybody, we need to make sure those discussions are had and those details are buttoned up before we comment. We don’t generally comment on rumors.”
In two weeks, the button came undone, and Straub slammed the city with a $4 million claim. He hired Mary Schultz, another local attorney with a record of winning cases, including one recently against the Spokane Country Club for discriminating against women.
Straub denies accusations
Straub disputes accusations of explosive behavior and sexual harassment. He denies threatening subordinates. Straub doesn’t dispute that the mayor can fire him, Schultz said.
It’s the way he was fired that got to him. There was no formal investigation into reports of Straub’s alleged explosive behavior, Schultz said. He wasn’t given time to respond to those allegations, she said.
Straub took issue with the “gratuitous public dissemination of very damaging letters,” referring to letters handed out during Condon’s news conference announcing his removal as police chief. One letter from the Lieutenants and Captains Association cited personal attacks, emotional outbursts, scare tactics, threats, retaliation, inappropriate language and untruthfulness as examples of Straub’s behavior. Straub continues to deny those accusations.
“The Mayor hired him to wade in and the Mayor mandated him to wade in,” Straub’s claim says. “Once he was in, city administration undercut his authority, coddled mutiny, and subversively managed cancerous factions to its own perceived advantage. This was an engineered process designed to damage Frank Straub and enhance the mayor’s standing.”
Condon responded with tight lips, saying in a statement only that the claim was “unfortunate as we would like to move the Spokane Police Division forward without distraction.”
But the distractions continued.
Last month, as Condon was running for re-election, his opponent, Shar Lichty, filed an ethics complaint against Sanders and Coddington for lying during the lead-up to Straub’s ouster and violating the city’s ethics code prohibiting acts of “moral turpitude and dishonesty.”
Sanders and Coddington responded by saying the complaint was politically motivated. But Sanders was found to have violated the code, and fined $75. The complaint against Coddington was dismissed.
In Sanders’ letter rebutting Lichty’s claim, she suggested her mistake had been talking to the media, not lying.
“Mostly, I regret ever having discussed the matter with the media as I needn’t have, shouldn’t have, and certainly will not in the future,” Sanders wrote. The ethics commission followed Sanders’ lead and told her to refrain from speaking to the media about Straub.
Though Condon won by a landslide against Lichty, Straub still haunted him.
Days after winning re-election, the city released text messages between Straub, Cotton and others.
In one text sent in 2013, Straub told Cotton, “See you soon. Love you. You are an awesome partner and best friend. You always will be!”
Those texts elicited the first public comments from Cotton, who had until then remained quiet on the subject.
“The message was a one way communication from my former supervisor to me and another member of the command staff,” Cotton said in a statement. “It was odd and uncomfortable and I did not respond.”
Stuckart: ‘You have a duty as an employer’
The request for records cited here had been made in late August by The Spokesman-Review and the records, along with other documents, were set to be released on Oct. 29, but city officials delayed the release at the last minute for further review.
One request filed on Aug. 21 asked for documents surrounding the March 31 meeting. At 4 p.m. Tuesday, the city fulfilled that request, and the documents detailed and shed light on much of what is reported in this article. The records were the first to show that Condon knew in April of accusations of sexual harassment against Straub. They showed the tense discussions between Sanders and Cotton, as well as between Dunn and Isserlis, and included handwritten notes from Griffiths and Olsen.
It also came three months after the request was made.
For Stuckart, the council president, the delay of records was a “political calculation” that he suggested was done in an attempt to ensure Condon’s re-election effort.
But perhaps even worse, Stuckart said, was that Straub likely would still be in charge of a police department – with scores of female employees below him – if questions hadn’t started being asked and records sought.
“The administration should have dealt with it, even if Monique didn’t want to. You have a duty as an employer. You have an ethical responsibility to deal with it,” he said. “They left this person in the job and just hoped it would go away. He could still be chief of police.”
Stuckart is indignant and considering launching a City Council investigation into the actions of Condon and members of his administration. He’s called for Straub to resign from the city immediately; the former chief was transferred to the city attorney’s office when he was forced to resign from the police department and still draws his nearly $180,000 annual salary.
“I’m really disappointed, both for citizens and for the council. I’m severely disappointed. I don’t know how I can trust them moving forward at all,” Stuckart said.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.