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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Notes from Police Chief Frank Straub’s top staff show City Hall was informed of hostile work environment allegations 16 months before chief was fired

FILE – Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub answers questions about the arrest of murder suspect Timothy E. Suckow during a press briefing, Jan. 14, 2014 at the Public Saftey Building. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Allegations about former Spokane police Chief Frank Straub’s behavior were known to officials in the city’s Human Resources and Legal departments nearly two years ago, according to notes from members of the Police Department who were in leadership roles under Straub.

Those notes – from the personal logs of Lt. Joe Walker and Capt. Dan Torok, obtained through a public records request – describe Straub as “vindictive,” “on a rant,” “red faced” and “extremely inappropriate.” The notes tell of situations where Straub called officers “deaf and mute,” treated “employees as widgets,” and “berated and belittled” his staff.

The notes from Walker and Torok shed light on issues with Straub’s behavior that eventually led Mayor David Condon to demand Straub’s resignation in September. At the time, Condon said he only had heard of concerns about Straub’s behavior in the “last several weeks,” but the recently released notes show senior City Hall administrators were told of Straub’s alleged behavior 16 months earlier.

Another department member who was part of Straub’s original command staff, Carly Cortright, said she was aware of such issues stretching back that far. She recently filed a complaint with the city, alleging a hostile work environment under Straub, concerns about retaliation and gender discrimination. She did so, she said, because she believes no one at City Hall has her interests in mind.

Brian Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman, would not comment on the notes, saying an investigation headed by former federal prosecutor Kris Cappel will look into the matter.

“That information is being reviewed as part of the ongoing inquiry into the recent personnel matters that was requested jointly by the mayor and City Council,” Coddington said. “The city has agreed as part of that process to reserve comments as we participate and cooperate fully with the inquiry.”

Mary Schultz, Straub’s attorney, dismissed the notes as sour grapes.

“Lt. Walker’s personal log is a yearlong ‘mean girls’ diary. Whenever it was created, it certainly supports Frank Straub’s impression of him – and does so long before we get anywhere near any deposition phase,” Schultz said, referring to a likely lawsuit from Straub.

Since Straub’s forced resignation, City Hall has been thrown into turmoil. Relations between Condon and the City Council have degraded, Straub has filed a $4 million claim against the city for a violation of due process related to his ouster, an investigation led by a former federal prosecutor has begun and two ethics complaints against Condon – one from former council President Joe Shogan, another from the National Organization for Women and the Center for Justice – are headed to full hearings by the city’s Ethics Commission next month.

Early signs

Notes from Walker and Torok, who were both part of Straub’s original command staff, show warning signs of Straub’s allegedly inappropriate behavior emerged as early as October 2013.

On Oct. 9, 2013, Walker was commander of investigations but was unhappy with the demands Straub placed on his top staff. Walker wrote of a meeting he had with Straub, in which he told the chief he wanted to “roll back to Captain.”

“His time expectations were unattainable at times and how he viewed and treated employees was not something I agreed with,” Walker wrote. “The Chief was not pleased that I was asking to step back. He started to get very mad. The Chief said he was disappointed with my decision. He was clearly angry and made a statement that ‘I blew him up and I was going to ruin everything’ by doing this.”

Two months later, in mid-December, Straub again expressed his disappointment in Walker’s decision, at a meeting with Walker and Torok.

“He told Torok and I that we were the only two that knew how everything worked and were able to get the work done. He called (Capt. Brad) Arleth the guy that couldn’t finish anything and (Assistant Chief Craig) Meidl deaf and mute,” Walker wrote. “The Chief had asked me at least twice now to become the AC in Meidl’s place and sent texts stating this. He said he was going to demote AC Meidl if I accepted this position.”

Walker refused the promotion, but Straub was not yet done with his attempts to persuade Walker to take a leadership role, which included more negative comments about his employees, according to Walker’s notes.

On Jan. 2, 2014, Walker met with Straub again. Straub stated that “no one in command works the hours” Straub did, and he didn’t understand why.

“I told him people have families too and he can’t just see employees as widgets,” Walker wrote. “He started to get irritated about this and said that people get divorced all the time and that work should come first.”

Walker wrote that he told Straub he was giving “everything I had” but Straub’s views on families were troubling.

On Jan. 9, 2014, Walker, Torok and then-Capt. Rick Dobrow, who is now interim chief, met with Straub, who had angry words for Walker, according to his notes.

“He berated and belittled me stating people at city hall didn’t have any respect for me and specifically mentioned Theresa Sanders & Mayor. He said they thought I was a quitter,” Walker wrote. Using coarse language, Straub also told Walker that Condon didn’t care “about families and divorces” and that City Administrator Theresa Sanders “didn’t even need a job because she was a Microsoft millionaire. He said I quit on them and the department.”

After the meeting, Walker spoke to Dobrow.

“Dobrow said he had ‘never seen anything like that.’ He also said he was documenting all of it in notes. He said there was no way he could work directly for anyone like that. I also had a phone conversation with (Assistant City Attorney) Erin Jacobson and told her what had occurred.”

Dobrow later accepted Straub’s offer to become assistant chief. No notes from him were provided by the city in response to The Spokesman-Review’s records request. City Clerk Terri Pfister said on Friday that “Chief Dobrow has confirmed he has no responsive materials.” Calls to City Attorney Nancy Isserlis seeking comment were not returned.

Human Resources involvement

Six days after the meeting with Straub, on Jan. 15, Walker, Torok and Dobrow met with Jacobson and Heather Lowe, the city’s human resources director, and gave them “very clear details of his (Straub’s) behavior and comments that he made during our meeting with him. They said it would be addressed.”

In February, labor negotiations began between the city and the Lieutenants and Captains Association, of which Walker is a member. During one of these contract meetings, on Feb. 26, Straub said he had heard that a complaint against former police spokeswoman Monique Cotton had been filed with police Internal Affairs, and asked the association’s president, Lt. Dave McCabe, for details. According to Walker, Straub had asked that the complaint against Cotton be handled by him or police management, not by Internal Affairs. The complaint alleged that Cotton had falsified documents, but it was later dismissed by the city’s Human Resources Department.

Walker wrote that the chief wanted details, but McCabe said he wouldn’t see them until the complaint was filed. “The Chief then turned and glared right at me and said ‘I see where this is going.’ He seemed to take it personal,” Walker wrote.

Walker interpreted Straub’s actions as threatening “potential retaliation.”

Two days later, Walker and McCabe met with Gita George-Hatcher, who is now director of the city’s Civil Services Department but at the time was a human resources analyst assigned to the police and fire departments.

“We told her (Straub) seemed to be very protective of (Cotton) and spent a lot of time with her at work,” Walker wrote. “She asked if we believed if there was anything illegal going on and we said ‘no.’ She asked about ethical and we said we didn’t know. … She said she would bring it to her bosses (Lowe’s) attention. We felt our concerns would be addressed because Gita is the department’s HR rep and provides training to the department reference bullying and harassment.”

Cotton and Straub deny any intimate relationship existed between them. In a private meeting between the mayor and Cotton in April, Cotton accused Straub of sexually harassing her and demanded a job transfer. Condon agreed and has said he kept her accusations quiet out of respect for her and an attempt to follow city rules as he interpreted them.

In March 2014, Walker said he told Lowe a litany of concerns about Straub. Lowe reports directly to Sanders, the city administrator.

In a meeting at Hallett’s Chocolates and Coffee House, Walker told Lowe of Straub’s alleged anger and disparagement of employees. Walker said he and others were resistant to speak too forcefully on the matter because they were “concerned about retaliation.”

“I said he used to make Carly (Cortright) cry when she would let him know he was spending more than he should be and he would get mad and yell at her,” Walker wrote on March 17, 2014. At the time, Cortright was the police business services director and helped oversee the department’s budget.

“The Chief said some inappropriate things about the US attorney early on, because Mr. Ormsby didn’t come to (the) Compstat (meetings) at first,” Walker continued, referring to discussions about statistical analysis used by the Police Department. “These comments got back to Mr. Ormsby and the Chief ended up telling us he (Straub) had to apologize.”

After Walker told Lowe of “how the Chief had been treating employees and the inappropriate comments that he has made,” Lowe “assured me she would look into these concerns and make sure to monitor any possible future issues,” he said.

Lowe said she doesn’t recall having such an in-depth conversation with Walker.

“I’m not recalling that. What I do recall is that he asked me to have an informal conversation over coffee about all the changes in the command staff,” Lowe said. “There were a lot of command staff changes. … There was a lot of frustration around that.”

Lowe said she “recused” herself from police matters in late 2013 because her husband had been hired by the Police Department. She maintained the recusal, she said, until April 2015, when he left the department.

After hearing Walker’s notes about the meeting, Lowe said she didn’t recall the content of their conversation, except for one salient detail.

“Neither of us were taking notes during that meeting, I remember that,” Lowe said. “We were just drinking coffee and chatting.”

In April, Walker heard from Straub that Cotton was planning to file a “hostile workplace lawsuit” against him and Torok, and Walker called Jacobson, of the city attorney’s office. She hadn’t heard of the suit but said she would look into it. Walker pressed her, wondering if concerns about Straub’s behavior were known outside of the Police Department.

“I told her I have taken two demotions to get away from and avoid him because of his bullying and harassment,” Walker wrote. “I finally asked her if there was anything she could do to make sure others at City Hall were aware of his behavior. She said they were aware and had heard things.”

Seven months later, and nearly a year before Straub would be forced out, Walker wrote a prediction of Straub’s legacy.

“I told (a co-worker) I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chief eventually caused a bigger mess for the City or the department,” he wrote.

Straub’s attorney, Mary Schultz, argues that Torok’s notes reflect poorly on Cotton.

“Capt. Torok’s log confirms that senior police staff reported concerns to the city early on about ‘integrity issues’ with Ms. Cotton, including her altering emails,” Schultz said.

Torok: Chief backpedaled

Torok’s notes also shed light on what transpired in the Police Department but focus more on Cotton’s alleged “relationship” with Straub.

In February 2014, Torok accused Cotton of changing documents detailing who was responsible for talking to the media present at a crime scene. Torok was “convinced that she had lied and misrepresented” in the documents.

“There seems to be a problem with her integrity,” Torok wrote. “I am apprehensive about pushing it forward because of potential retaliation. The Chief, thru demotions, has shown that he can be vindictive. In addition, I am aware of a close relationship between the Chief and Monique.”

Torok’s knowledge of this “relationship” stems from a group text message among Straub, Cotton and Torok. The purpose of the group text dealt with a statement sent to the media about the arrest of a criminal suspect. Straub thanked Cotton for releasing the statement, and she responded by saying it was important for the community to know of good police work.

Straub replied, to both Cotton and Torok, “See you soon. Love you. You are an awesome partner and best friend. You always will be!”

Straub then sent another a minute later that said, “Group hugs this morning at the briefing.”

A text from Straub with the same time stamp as the previous text said, “Dan you are totally awesome as well. I love you. Good advice on both your parts.”

In his notes, Torok dismissed the last text as Straub covering his tracks.

“It was quite apparent that the text was not for me and I immediately thought that the Chief must have thought that he was texting Monique only,” Torok wrote. “The Chief had never told me that he loved me. In fact no boss has ever said that to me. It was apparent that he was trying to create the impression that he knew he was in a group text mode. I think the Chief’s relationship would make it impossible for (him) to discipline her.”

The texts were released by the city through a public records request last year. At the time, Cotton said the text she got from Straub made her feel uncomfortable.

“The message was a one way communication from my former supervisor to me and another member of the command staff,” Cotton wrote in response to the release of the texts. “It was odd and uncomfortable and I did not respond.”

On Friday, Cotton referred questions to her lawyer, Bob Dunn.

Dunn said Walker’s and Torok’s notes likely contain some facts about Straub’s behavior and events that occurred, but he warned against reading them as professionally rendered documents of truth.

“They look more like somebody’s diary at the end of the week with their best recollections,” Dunn said. “They’re not very objective. I think they had their agenda.”

That agenda, Dunn said, was to get ahead in a male-dominated, political arena.

“I think there’s a culture in the Spokane Police Department that goes back a number of years, that this is a boys club,” he said. “I don’t say that pejoratively. It’s a statement of fact. It’s a quasimilitary group run by men, predominantly.”

Dunn said Cotton entered the department near the top, despite being “20 to 25 years younger than the majority of the rank and file,” leading to misplaced animosity.

“She gets caught in an umbrella of resentment against Straub and the growing animosity toward him,” Dunn said. “That is such a politically toxic arena over there. The picture I get is people throwing elbows in the key for a rebound. The best approach to survive over there is to keep your head down.”