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Saturday, August 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

City Hall investigation into handling of Spokane police chief’s ouster derailed

The investigation into the firing of former police Chief Frank Straub has been derailed.

Officials in Mayor David Condon’s administration and others privy to the bungled decision removing Straub have yet to talk, prompting City Council President Ben Stuckart to ask the mayor to force their cooperation with an investigator.

The three-month investigation, led by former federal prosecutor Kris Cappel, has run into roadblocks as Straub, more than a dozen members of the police department and attorneys in the city’s legal department have refused to cooperate.

Monique Cotton, the former police spokeswoman who told Condon last April that Straub sexually harassed her, has not yet been interviewed. Her attorney, Bob Dunn, called the investigation a sham and suggested he would counsel Cotton against cooperating.

Stuckart has asked Condon to force current city employees to cooperate with the investigation under threat of disciplinary action, a power regularly used during internal investigations by police.

“We are not going to know the truth until people talk to the investigator,” Stuckart said.

Condon has declined to issue such a directive, and Stuckart now says he will use the City Council’s power to subpoena in June if Condon doesn’t compel employees to participate.

Stuckart noted, however, that subpoenaing employees is a last resort. Condon’s use of the Garrity rule is more appropriate, Stuckart said, referring to a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said public employees can be forced to give statements under threat of discipline, but that the information can’t be used in a criminal investigation against that employee.

When Stuckart asked Condon to use the Garrity rule, Condon referred him to former Mayor Dennis Hession, who was hired by the city to help represent it in the lawsuit Straub brought against the city for a violation of due process related to his ouster.

“To me that doesn’t make any sense. The legal case is just about Straub and his civil rights. That is completely different than what the scope of this investigation is,” Stuckart said, adding that Condon avoided speaking to the issue he raised about the Garrity rule.

“It’s more appropriate than the council using its subpoena power,” Stuckart said. “If council uses its subpoena power, people can plead the Fifth and it will become a media circus.”

But some say the investigation has already turned into one.

Lt. Dave McCabe, president of the police Lieutenants and Captains Association, said his group has allowed police brass to make their own decisions on whether to cooperate with the investigation or not. He said that he and many other members don’t have much faith in the investigation, considering how a previous complaint from the association against Cotton was dismissed.

“We certainly have concerns about how the city has conducted investigations in the past and would not take part until ordered to do so,” McCabe said. “Without an order from the mayor ordering everyone to participate, we are very concerned that the truth of the matter will not come out.”

McCabe said members of the police department are “more than willing” to cooperate but feel at a disadvantage when other city employees – notably city attorneys – are not under Condon’s order to participate.

“It’s mind boggling that that order hasn’t been given. The whole purpose of the investigation is to bring everything out in the open. If mistakes were made, changes can take place,” McCabe said. “If it’s going to be an incomplete investigation, then what’s the point of going through with the investigation? There’s a lot of us here that are about sick and tired of the games being played at City Hall.”

In early February, former interim Chief Rick Dobrow did order police to cooperate, and Cappel set up shop in the department, asking about 20 police department members to participate in interviews. Cappel interviewed a handful of department personnel, including Assistant Chief Craig Meidl, Maj. Justin Lundgren, Capt. Eric Olsen and Lt. Mark Griffiths.

But when a rumor circulated that City Administrator Theresa Sanders was unwilling to be interviewed, Condon and Stuckart sent a memo to all city employees saying participation was voluntary. That ended all other interviews at the police department. Cappel’s office remained on the first floor of the Spokane County Courthouse.

Brian Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman, said Sanders will participate in the investigation, but only with her attorney, Keller Allen, present. She has not yet been interviewed.

Coddington said Condon also plans to participate in the investigation, with his attorney Jim King at his side. Cappel hasn’t asked Coddington to participate, but the spokesman will if asked.

It’s unclear if City Attorney Nancy Isserlis will participate. She has hired an attorney from Portland and did not return calls seeking comment Thursday. Condon, Sanders and Isserlis were all named in Straub’s lawsuit against the city.

Coddington said he is wary of speaking about the investigation because he was trying to “honor the ground rules of the investigation,” which say “all communications go through the committee of four.” Members of that committee were chosen by Condon and the City Council, and include Councilman Breean Beggs; Brian McClatchey, the City Council’s policy adviser; Rick Romero, the city’s utilities head; and Laura McAloon, an attorney.

However, Coddington did say the investigation is moving forward.

“She has been given and reviewed a stack of documents and conducted several interviews. It’s still moving forward,” he said. “That’s certainly the intention, that it is thorough.”

Coddington wouldn’t remark on Stuckart’s subpoena threat, other than to say that “it would be premature to discuss any of those hypothetical options.” He noted that Straub and Cotton are no longer City Hall employees, so they would not be subject to the Garrity rule.

Mary Schultz, Straub’s attorney, confirmed Straub wouldn’t participate.

“Who even IS participating in that investigation?” she said in an email.

Dunn, Cotton’s attorney, said Cotton was approached several months ago to participate, and she agreed. No one from the city, nor Cappel, has asked to speak to Cotton again, and Dunn suggested Cotton would no longer be willing to participate.

“At this point in time, what would be the point?” Dunn said. “If this is just a whitewash of some kind to cover their tracks and go through the necessary hoop-jumping, then why bother?”

Stuckart, however, said he still had faith in the investigation, but only if everyone cooperates with Cappel. His belief that this will happen is slipping, he said.

“The public and city will never get to the truth as long as people are not honest and as long as they do not speak to the investigator,” Stuckart said in an email. “The mayor has chosen to let other people dictate what he can and cannot do instead of doing the right thing and compelling testimony. Until the mayor compels members of the legal and police departments to testify we will never arrive at the truth.”

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