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Tuesday, October 15, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Police ombudsman commissioners seek deeper background check on job finalist

Robert Breeden takes a break from a community forum for the police ombudsman candidates, Aug. 27, 2015, at the East Central Community Center.  DAN PELLE danp@spokesman.com (Dan Pelle)
Robert Breeden takes a break from a community forum for the police ombudsman candidates, Aug. 27, 2015, at the East Central Community Center. DAN PELLE danp@spokesman.com (Dan Pelle)

A week after Spokane’s police chief was forced to step down because of accusations he harassed and belittled subordinates, people involved in the decision to select a new police ombudsman say they’re concerned about similar allegations against one of the finalists for that job.

Robert Breeden, one of three finalists for the ombudsman job, retired from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement earlier this year after a 2014 investigation found he engaged in unprofessional conduct by belittling and screaming at subordinates. He had been second-in-command of the department’s Miami field office.

While interviewing for the ombudsman position, Breeden said the investigation was part of a smear campaign by his former boss in Florida, Addy Villanueva. He has filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging she retaliated against him after he spoke to supervisors about her frequent absences from work and misuse of her department vehicle.

He garnered public support for the ombudsman job from some community members, who pointed to the amount of research he’d done about Spokane and his work directing investigations in Miami. But concerns remain about his actions as a supervisor.

“The chief was forced to resign because of allegations about his temper and workplace demeanor,” said Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the Center for Justice.

He said Breeden had provided a “good explanation” about similar allegations, but added, “I think it’s important that we just do our due diligence … and make sure there’s nothing to this story.”

The Florida department’s investigation details interviews with 79 people who worked with or under Breeden there, about half of whom describe him as an intimidating boss with a quick temper who screamed at and bullied subordinates.

According to the report, special agent supervisor John Vecchio compared the office Breeden helped run to a family with an abusive father. Another special agent, Kristen Hoffacker, recalled Breeden aggressively poking her during a training session to ask her about another agent’s whereabouts.

“She said it may not have been abusive, but she felt that it was definitely inappropriate,” the report says.

Other agents who worked with Breeden said they never witnessed abusive behavior, according to the report.

When interviewed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Breeden denied he had abused anyone and said he was a demanding boss who expected good work from those under him. He reiterated that during an interview in Spokane in August.

“Miami is a very unique animal and some of the people who made those comments did not want to be supervised,” he said.

Breeden self-disclosed the investigation and whistleblower suit to the ombudsman search committee during the hiring process, city attorney Nancy Isserlis said.

Search committee members contacted the references provided by Breeden and the other two finalists, Allen Huggins and Raheel Humayun, but did not make additional reference calls or visit any of the finalists’ hometowns, city spokesman Brian Coddington said.

During the hiring process for former ombudsman Tim Burns, members of the city’s selection committee flew out to finalists’ hometowns to check references. When Burns was hired, there was no ombudsman commission, so the mayor had final say on the hire.

“The presumption was always that the ombudsman commission itself would do its own due diligence, which it obviously has,” Coddington said.

Breeden appeared to be the front-runner for the ombudsman job after a Sept. 1 public forum where many in the community expressed support for him, though some favored hiring Humayun, an investigator with the British Columbia Office of the Ombudsperson. Huggins doesn’t appear to be in contention after concerns were raised in multiple public forums about his online comments on the Black Lives Matter movement.

The ombudsman commission is due to meet Wednesday evening to pick an ombudsman. Chairwoman Deb Conklin said commissioners need to talk through issues that have been raised since candidate interviews in late August.

“We have a chief who has now stepped down because of accusations of creating a hostile work environment, and one of the three candidates who came from the search committee is someone who’s been investigated for essentially creating a hostile work environment,” Conklin said. “That creates a serious problem for the commission moving forward.”

Attempts to reach ombudsman commissioners Scott Richter, AJ VanderPol and Ladd Smith were unsuccessful Monday.

Commissioner Jenny Rose, who was appointed in early September, said she had concerns about candidates’ backgrounds before Straub resigned, but otherwise did not want to comment on the decision she would make Wednesday.

Conklin said doing more background checking is important, and that the onus for those checks should be on the city, not on volunteer commissioners who have other full-time jobs.

“This isn’t something that is consistent with our expectations of our duties as commissioners,” she said.

Eichstaedt agreed the city’s search committee should have done more screening, but said ombudsman commissioners should put a hiring decision on hold until someone is able to fly out to check references.

“We deserve that with this candidate and I think it’s worth it to take a little more time,” he said.

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