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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The mayor’s Cotton-Straub mess ‘has been entirely self-inflicted’

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

In a column earlier this week, I wrote about some of the questions remaining following the Cappel report.

Today I’m asking a few more.

The report investigated the city’s handling of the disintegration of Chief Frank Straub’s tenure at the Spokane Police department, and its handling of requests for public records covering the decision to move police spokeswoman Monique Cotton into a different job. The investigator, Kris Cappel of Seattle’s Seabold Group, concluded that City Administrator Theresa Sanders and City Attorney Nancy Isserlis intentionally withheld documents until after Mayor David Condon was re-elected. Sanders denies this, and Condon has insisted that “there was absolutely no intentional effort to keep documents from the public.”

The Cappel report was hindered greatly by the fact that the Condon administration routed the public records process through the city attorney’s office – thereby cloaking documents in attorney-client privilege. Four city attorneys refused to be interviewed by Cappel; it’s not clear whether the mayor refused to release them from the privilege – though he said publically he wanted Isserlis to be interviewed – or whether they declined themselves. The result, intentional or not, is that a lot of information remains hidden in the black hole of the city attorney’s office.

Some further questions:

How red does a red flag have to be for someone at City hall to notice it? Several police officers complained about Straub over the course of years. The shuffling among the top brass was simply incredible – longtime cops repeatedly self-demoted to get away from the chief. The head of human resources, Heather Lowe, heard multiple times about problems with Straub’s leadership, the report concludes – including from her own husband, who works in the police department. She had heard at informal social gatherings about the problems, and hung out socially with one of the people who had one of the most dramatic conflicts with the chief.

That person, Carly Cortright, said that she didn’t file a formal complaint because she didn’t believe it would be taken seriously; she also said her impression was that Lowe’s job, as head of HR, was “to make the department heads happy.”

Nothing Lowe heard “created any red flags for her,” Cappel wrote. Another time, Sgt. Joe Walker approached Lowe with concerns about Straub, saying he wanted to stay as far away from the chief as possible. Walker was one of the self-demoters. Again, Lowe concluded that it was “nothing that would send up a red flag.” On another occasion, she had to talk Straub out of disciplining Walker without justification. Again: no red flags. Because her husband works in the police department, Lowe is not supposed to get involved in police issues herself; she had no memory of ever referring any issue regarding Straub to another HR person.

Several others had knowledge of Straub’s increasingly unhinged outbursts, dating back to 2013. One top administrator reportedly told a police official: “Frank’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole.” The Inlander’s Daniel Walters counted up 25 instances in the report where city officials outside the police department were told of problems with Straub, starting in 2013.

Sanders said that though she had heard some tales of Straub’s behavior, she assumed he was a tough boss getting pushback from a change-resistant organization. In the abstract, this seems understandable – if any organization needed a little yelling-at, it was probably the SPD.

And yet the pattern of behavior, the depth of the filth and anger Straub unloaded on people, and the repeated touches that top administrators had on the subject makes it clear that there was some strenuous overlooking going on. Those flags were bright red.

But didn’t the mayor act quickly to fire Straub when he learned of the problems? This is the argument Coddington and Sanders make. And it’s true that when the police department leadership came to Condon as a unified front to complain about Straub in September 2015, Condon then moved to oust him. But the record of knowable problems stretches back so far, it’s impossible to consider that prompt action; it’s more like desperate flailing at the edge of too late.

Administrators repeatedly return to the theme that, when it came to the handling of the Cotton matter, they were trying to be considerate of a distressed employee. The Cappel report is filled with examples of other distressed employees who got much less speedy consideration, though, possibly because they didn’t hire attorney Bob Dunn to cajole the mayor.

How much of a knee-quake does Dunn set off when he contacts City Hall? A lot. Among the side notes of interest in the report was the manner in which the whole Cotton affair began: Dunn reached out to the mayor, said he wanted a private meeting at Dunn’s office about a city employee he was representing, whom he did not identify and about whom he told the mayor nothing.

The mayor ran right over.

When did “positive messaging” become the term of art for “truthful lie”? Naïve or not, one might expect a certain, basic level of factual accuracy in communications from the city. But the report’s detailed examination of the way that Cotton’s reassignment from police to parks makes it clear that spokesman Brian Coddington, Sanders, Cotton, Condon and others were trying their very hardest to create and peddle a false story: that Cotton was being promoted simply on merit and to fill a need, rather than moved out of the line of fire of an abusive boss that they had failed to check in any appreciable way.

In preparing the public announcement of Cotton’s transfer, Sanders and others promised Cotton that the city would do “really positive messaging” and that Cotton could help create the message. When the news was announced, and after this newspaper published a story based on this officially sanctioned falsehood, Sanders and Isserlis traded congratulatory texts.

Coddington defends the news release announcing the transfer as being fundamentally truthful. “The content of the press release was absolutely accurate,” he said.

This may be so in terms of details. And I’m not so naïve to expect them to have trotted out the whole sordid affair on their own. But there are ways to keep confidences without creating affirmative lies, and the Cotton tale was artfully constructed to sell a false story and to cover up a growing problem. The argument that it was truthful speaks to a fundamental failure that runs throughout the administration’s response to the case from the very first: a lack of any sense that they had a duty to be honest, and a very strong sense that calls for such honesty are destructive and illegitimate.

In a written statement, Condon said, “this experience has taught me that the public’s right to know apparently supersedes an individual employee’s plea for privacy.”

Which makes it clear that this experience has not taught the mayor a thing.

Did anyone, ever, believe there was an incident of sexual harassment? The investigator found no evidence that there was any harassment of Cotton by Straub. Sanders was “dubious” from the start and said, “I felt as if I was being set up.” Top city officials concluded the complaint was “unsubstantiated” after talking to Straub on April 21, 2015, and spent no time investigating it further – asking astonishingly few elementary questions along the way. “For instance,” Cappel writes, “Ms. Cotton was never asked when the alleged conduct occurred, how many times, the circumstances and context, or whether there were any witnesses.”

What people had heard about – a lot – was the rumor that Straub and Cotton had an affair. Both would deny it. The report details that Condon, Coddington and Sanders all were well acquainted with the rumors and took no steps to see if they were true. Coddington said he’d heard rumors as early as 2013 and relayed them to the mayor. Sanders said she’d heard “many, many rumors” about it. Condon said he didn’t recall hearing such rumors, but had heard Straub had shown favoritism to Cotton.

A police officer reported to Isserlis that Cotton had been seen wearing the chief’s jacket during Bloomsday in 2013 or 2014. As early as 2014, a police officer approached top administration officials with the “Love you” text. The administration appears to have taken no action to see if the rumors were true; if they were, it would have been a violation of city policy.

Did the mayor and Sanders tell the full truth about what Straub told them when confronted with sexual harassment allegations? “The investigation revealed credible information that was inconsistent with the Mayor and Ms. Sanders’ statements regarding what they and the attorneys were told by Chief Straub when he was confronted with the sexual harassment allegations. However, we were unable to corroborate that information through other sources of evidence. We believe (City Attorney Nancy) Isserlis and (assistant city attorney Erin) Jacobson have relevant information regarding this subject, but they were unavailable to us.”

Why did the mayor struggle so to answer questions about his conversations with Straub about the sexual harassment allegations? “Mayor Condon was asked the question several times, and finally said after some effort on this line of questioning, that Straub admitted to a work relationship with Ms. Cotton that he ‘had to bring back to a more professional level.’”

Here’s an example of the effort, from the transcript.

Ms. Cappel: Did he deny that he touched her without her consent?

Mayor Condon: In – yes. He said nothing, you know – that nothing had happened and then we – you know, then again that’s why my presumption was that we would have, you know, done a – an interview, but she would have – she refused to do anything, so that’s why it didn’t move forward in – in the way that – you know, it just couldn’t move forward because she wouldn’t substantiate any of it, was my understanding. …

Ms. Cappel: So you referred to it that he denied there was an inappropriate relationship.

Mayor Condon: Or the claims of sexual harassment that she had, you know – so both. He denied both. And so our process would have – you know, that’s where, you know, my thought was that Monique would file an official claim and we would do – you know, and try to get third parties to confirm one way or the other, so –

“She did not. And so we were at a stalemate. She – she said, but wouldn’t substantiate it. He denied it. So it was somewhat at the end of an ability to investigate it.

Ms. Cappel: And did –

Mayor Condon: I guess that was the investigation. We asked the two parties. And then she refused to – or refused to go through a formal process to – to look at it.”

Finally, once again, where does the buck stop? It’s supposed to stop with the mayor. Some people think he, or Sanders, should quit. Some people think he should be recalled. I don’t know. From my perspective, this has always been a hole Condon has insisted on digging ever deeper, out of defensiveness and a failure to treat the criticisms and questions as legitimate. There is more self-pity than self-awareness in the response to the entire situation, to say nothing of taking responsibility. He’s turned a manageable problem into an ugly stain on his administration’s credibility, and it has been – from the hiring of Straub to the inability to see the growing problems to the attempts to mislead the public over the Cotton transfer to the dogged insistence on secrecy via the city attorney’s office – entirely self-inflicted.

At least that’s what it looks like from outside the black hole.

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

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