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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane city attorney nominee McAloon denies influencing Straub report

Laura McAloon, pictured Dec. 15, 2015. (Courtesy photo)

The nominee to lead the embattled Spokane city attorney’s office denies exerting any improper influence on an independent investigation into the ouster of former police Chief Frank Straub and said she would not withdraw from consideration.

Laura McAloon at a news conference on Saturday accused members of the City Council and the media of speculating about her motives.

“We just want it to be known that there was no undue influence on Kris Cappel,” McAloon said, adding that her name had been “dragged through the mud.”

McAloon is both Mayor David Condon’s choice to be the next city attorney and one of his representatives on a committee overseeing the investigation into Straub’s forced resignation last September.

The committee, which also included City Council representatives, was formed in a compromise between the City Council and mayor, who were deadlocked on what to do about the controversies surrounding Straub’s ouster. The two sides also agreed to hire Kris Cappel, a former federal prosecutor, to examine what happened. She released her final report on Wednesday.

The draft report reviewed by city officials Monday concluded that Condon, city spokesman Brian Coddington, City Administrator Theresa Sanders, former City Attorney Nancy Isserlis and Assistant City Attorney Pat Dalton purposely delayed the release of potentially embarrassing records about their knowledge of harassment complaints against Straub until after Condon’s re-election.

The final version of Cappel’s report removed Condon’s and Coddington’s names from that finding. Sanders and Dalton have denied their actions were politically motivated.

Cappel wrote in a letter accompanying the release of the report that the decision to remove the names was made after consulting Councilman Breean Beggs, as well as McAloon and former City Utilities Director Rick Romero, who also was picked by Condon to be his liaison to the investigation. Cappel, however, stressed that the decision to change the final version of the report was hers alone.

City Council President Ben Stuckart expressed outrage earlier this week that McAloon would contact Cappel ahead of the report’s public release. But McAloon and Romero said Saturday they were blindsided, after a lengthy conversation with Cappel on July 22, by the inclusion of Condon and Coddington in her conclusion that officials withheld public records requested by The Spokesman-Review “with the intent and purpose of delaying the production of those records until after the Mayor’s election.” McAloon and Romero said that finding, one of the explosive conclusions of the report, was not relayed to them in the July 22 phone call, instead focusing on Isserlis and Dalton.

“I saw that for the first time on Monday afternoon, before the City Council’s study session,” McAloon said. “And I was shocked, because it was complete news to me.”

McAloon and Romero said they agreed Condon’s and Coddington’s names should have been removed, but the late changes and Cappel’s inability to interview Isserlis or other members of the city attorney’s office left the entire report “qualified” and its findings subject to scrutiny. And Romero said he believed there wasn’t enough evidence for any names to be attached with the finding.

Isserlis, who resigned earlier this year, and other city attorneys declined Cappel’s request to be interviewed for the report, citing attorney-client privilege.

Stuckart said Saturday that Condon’s staff is shifting the focus away from the findings of the report, that records were improperly withheld and allegations of harassment were ignored by the mayor’s top staff.

“To call into question the report, because you don’t like the findings, is just another instance of them continually trying to shift and not hold people accountable for their actions,” Stuckart said.

Beggs, who was on the same phone call with McAloon, said he did not take notes during Cappel’s outline of her report but it was clear to him members of the administration were going to be named as complicit in the withholding of records.

“I don’t remember if at that briefing if she went through every person,” Beggs said. “I don’t remember that she didn’t. But I don’t remember that she did.”

Beggs said he was not surprised Condon’s and Coddington’s names were listed in the finding in the version of the report first released to the City Council and mayor on Monday.

McAloon also denied implications from Stuckart and others that her six-week contract with the mayor to perform city legal work, signed Monday, was evidence she was hired to influence the investigation. Condon named McAloon his appointee to serve as Isserlis’ replacement earlier this month. But the City Council has not approved the appointment.

McAloon said the contract, which did not require City Council approval, was drawn up so she could be part of the Monday afternoon meeting outlining the findings of the report. Before the signing of that contract, she served as the mayor’s volunteer. Beggs believed she could not be present at the meeting to discuss the report without being retained as legal counsel, a finding McAloon disputed.

“I told him about the potential liability of the city for Public Records Act violations, and also about the city attorney’s office,” McAloon said. “I said, ‘I feel very strongly, Breean, that I should be part of that discussion.’ ”

On Tuesday morning, after reviewing the findings of the report and upon direction from the mayor to question the evidence supporting the finding naming himself and Coddington, McAloon and Romero contacted Cappel to ask for her justification.

On Saturday, McAloon read from handwritten notes taken during that conversation. Cappel told her in the phone call she concluded Condon and Coddington knew the city attorney had retained records that were responsive to The Spokesman-Review’s public records request, and did not alert the city clerk’s office to their existence.

“We asked her, OK, so how does those facts support your findings?” McAloon said, reading from the notes. “She said it wasn’t an affirmative action on their part, to hide the records, but a failure to follow standard procedures.”

City Council members contacted Saturday said that Tuesday morning phone call should have occurred with Beggs and policy adviser Brian McClatchey, the council’s liaison to the investigator, also present.

“It just makes the whole process messy now,” City Councilwoman Amber Waldref said.

Beggs agreed.

“That conversation caused us a lot of problems,” Beggs said. “Here we are talking about that, instead of the substance of the report.”

Stuckart and City Councilwoman Karen Stratton said this week they could not support McAloon as a result of that conversation. Waldref, Beggs, and City Council members Candace Mumm and Lori Kinnear said they want an opportunity to question McAloon before making up their minds.

“She hasn’t been allowed to answer those allegations,” Kinnear said. “I think everybody deserves that.”

The majority of the council said McAloon has a reputation in the community as a strong attorney.

“She’s been put in a very tough position, to be in the middle of this,” Mumm said.

Beggs, an attorney who has faced criticism in his call for an elected city attorney that he is angling for the job, denied interest in an interview.

“It’s crossed my mind, but it’s not something I’m committed to doing,” Beggs said. “I’ve filed to run for re-election to City Council.”

Condon this week said he would continue to support McAloon, who has worked with the city for years on bond litigation, as his attorney. McAloon said she wanted the chance to respond to the implications of council members “from the dais” and decried what she sees as a continued lack of trust between the mayor and the council.

“I think the biggest problem at City Hall right now is the lack of communication on the seventh floor,” she said.