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Spokane City Council demands answers from Mayor Condon

Nov. 30, 2015 Updated Mon., Nov. 30, 2015 at 10:28 p.m.

Spokane City Hall reacted sharply Monday to revelations that Mayor David Condon knew in April of allegations of sexual harassment against former police Chief Frank Straub.

Members of the City Council all signed a letter written by Council President Ben Stuckart, which demanded details on why Condon’s top officials withheld information from council members and the media about allegations of a hostile work environment under Straub. The letter also asked for information about the delay in releasing public records surrounding the case, which were first sought in August by The Spokesman-Review.

“In the last few days, public records requests and media reports have brought to light various communications involving you and your staff, as well as documents generated by your staff, that raise questions about honesty and fairness,” reads the letter, which was emailed to Condon moments after council members approved and signed it during their Monday meeting.

Last week, the city released records that shed light on the transfer of police spokeswoman Monique Cotton to the city parks department, as well as the forced resignation of Straub in September. Much of what the records contained contradicted the explanations Condon and other city officials gave for the decisions regarding Straub and Cotton, which can be traced to allegations of explosive behavior from Straub, including accusations of sexual harassment from Cotton.

Earlier on Monday, Condon held a news conference to announce the appointment of retired federal Judge Michael Hogan to lead an investigation into how city officials handled complaints made against Straub. Hogan has worked on Spokane affairs before. He was hired by Condon in 2013 to investigate the handling of former Spokane police Chief Scott Stephens’ demotion after Straub was hired. Hogan also was brought in to broker a settlement in the civil case brought against the city by the family of Otto Zehm, who died after he was beaten, hogtied and shocked by police in 2006.

Previously, the Spokane Catholic Diocese hired Hogan to review claims of sexual abuse by clergy and assist settling bankruptcy proceedings as a result of civil lawsuits.

At Monday’s news conference, Condon spent 45 minutes answering questions from reporters. His remarks focused primarily on the limitations he and his officials faced since Cotton did not want to participate in a sexual harassment investigation against Straub.

“I can understand the frustration of folks on this, but we also have to realize that the negative effect of many people coming forward if they knew that any time there was an issue that we would, in essence, do a full investigation,” Condon said. “We did not investigate because we didn’t have someone that would allow us to investigate. The witness wouldn’t provide information. … The complainant needs to complain and sign off. That’s something we asked Ms. Cotton to do numerous times and she refused.”

As many council members said before, during and after their regular Monday evening meeting, they were not appeased with Condon naming an “independent investigator.”

Stuckart suggested Hogan was not independent because he was “handpicked” by Condon.

“I’ve got six different concerns about his investigation,” Stuckart said, noting he questioned Hogan’s expertise in city policies and procedures, specifically sexual harassment. “How is a handpicked investigator independent? How can you have an independent investigation if you’ve worked with them before?”

Instead, Stuckart drafted a letter with nine detailed questions for Condon. On the dais, members quickly signaled support for the letter.

“I do think the citizens and our employees deserve some answers,” said Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who read from part of the city’s employee handbook that said the city “will neither tolerate nor condone behavior that is likely to undermine the dignity or self-esteem of an individual, or create an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment.”

“I think as a city council, we need to stand by this, we need to stand by our employees and I think we need to have these questions answered for the citizens,” Stratton said.

Councilman Mike Allen said the city could be open to further litigation with the mismanagement of the allegations.

“There are no potential winners in this. Not the players involved, not the city,” he said. “But we as a council have a duty to the employees of the city, as well as the citizens, to find out what was the breakdown in the communication here, and how this was managed. Frankly, on its surface, it looks like something you learn in HR 101 in how to handle something like this. It’s very frustrating for me, so I will support this letter.”

Councilwoman Amber Waldref called the situation “unacceptable.”

“As a city, we have to foster a culture of fairness and respect for our employees,” she said. “I think that’s what disturbs me the most about the information that came out last week, was that it seems like the mayor’s office was aware of several incidences of alleged unprofessional or potentially illegal behavior by our police chief. That’s just unacceptable. We need to have these questions answered.”

Councilman Mike Fagan, the council’s most conservative member, supported the letter, but asked the council to delay the deadline for Condon’s answers to Dec. 11, a week later than Stuckart sought. Waldref and Stuckart voted against the date change, which passed 5-2.

If Condon doesn’t fully answer the questions, Stuckart said he would consider launching a council-led investigation, which would include the power to compel people to testify.

“We can subpoena people per the charter and demand answers, which for the first time ever would be a use of our charter-enabled subpoena power,” Stuckart said in an interview, adding that it would likely be a last resort to get information from Condon and his top officials.

Below is an earlier version of this report.

A retired federal judge will lead an independent investigation into Spokane’s handling of complaints made against former police Chief Frank Straub.

Mayor David Condon announced in a news release Monday morning that Judge Michael Hogan will begin an inquiry Tuesday. He will investigate the city’s transfer of former police department spokeswoman Monique Cotton to the parks department following her allegations that Straub sexually harassed and berated her, the release said.

He will also examine other complaints made about Straub by subordinates, looking at the process the city went through and city policies governing employee complaints.

Separately, he will examine the city’s public records fulfillment process, the release said.

There is no set timetable for Hogan’s investigation, but he will spend time in Spokane in December and will release a report once his work is finished.

This isn’t the first time Condon has hired Hogan, who retired three years ago from U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon, to review personnel matters.

Hogan was hired by Condon in 2013 to investigate the handling of former Spokane police Chief Scott Stephens’ demotion after Straub was hired.

Hogan was also brought on to broker a settlement in the civil case brought against the city by the family of Otto Zehm, who died after being confronted by former Spokane police Officer Karl Thompson in 2006.

The Spokane Catholic Diocese also hired Hogan to review claims of sexual abuse by clergy and assist settling bankruptcy proceedings as a result of civil lawsuits.

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