City attorneys concerned about speaking with an investigator examining the firing of former Police Chief Frank Straub received some cover from the Spokane City Council on Monday.
But Mayor David Condon will have to sign off on City Councilman Breean Beggs’ plan to hire an additional attorney, at a projected cost of roughly $20,000.
City Council members say they are committed to getting answers to the controversy surrounding Straub’s firing, but they are concerned about revealing details from their city attorneys.
Under Beggs’ plan, the new attorney would assist the city’s investigator, Kris Cappel, in her review of testimony and records from city attorneys, creating an attorney-client privilege that would allow the city to keep the records secret.
Beggs and other council members say they plan may be the best way to ensure Cappel will get a full account of what happened. They also are concerned if some information is revealed, it could be used against the city in lawsuits, including from Straub.
“Our commitment is for her to see it,” said Beggs, after the council voted 6 to 1 in favor of a resolution encouraging Condon to hire attorney Mike Harrington to support Cappel. Harrington would be yet another attorney in the growing litigation that Councilman Mike Fagan, who cast the sole vote in opposition to the plan, called “one hellaciously large lawsuit.”
After revelations that city leaders knew about allegations made against Straub much earlier than they acknowledged to the public, Condon and City Council members agreed to open an investigation. But city attorneys involved in the handling of Straub’s termination have raised concerns that participating in the investigation would violate their attorney-client privilege.
Straub, who left office in September, contends in a federal lawsuit that he was fired following allegations of harassment by top police brass and Monique Cotton, a former police spokeswoman. Straub said those allegations were not fully investigated before he was forced to resign.
“I’m going to defer, again, to cut bait, I’m going to side with the taxpayer on this, and I think we need to cease and desist at this time,” Fagan said before casting his vote.
But his opponents said Beggs’ proposal would allow the investigation, which has been hampered by witnesses wary of violating ethical rules, to reach completion.
“To think that the truth is going to hurt us in the lawsuit, we don’t know that,” said City Council President Ben Stuckart. “So I’ll value the truth for the citizens.”
A spokesman for Condon could not be reached after the vote Monday night, but Stuckart said representatives from his office agreed with Beggs’ recommendation to hire Harrington. Condon’s approval is needed, under city ordinances, to hire special legal counsel.
The agreement would mean that the results of Cappel’s investigation likely would be released in two batches, Beggs said. The first would include all information already given to investigators and could be released quickly to the public, he said. What he termed a “supplemental” report would follow, including information gathered with Harrington on-board. That report would not be presumed public because it might contain information protected from release by attorney-client privilege, he said.
Beggs said Cappel was nearing completion on the first portion of her report, and it could be released within the next couple of weeks.
Also Monday, Stuckart asked that a measure providing an additional $136,600 to the law firm Etter, McMahon, Lamberson, VanWert & Oreskovich for work on behalf of the city in the Straub lawsuit be delayed two weeks to give Condon time to retain Harrington. Stuckart had previously said he would not authorize more legal spending if Cappel was not given access to all documents and testimony, something he hopes will happen as a result of Beggs’ proposal.
“If in two weeks, the lawyer has not been appointed, I will vote no on the McMahon law firm, that’s what I’m saying,” Stuckart said.
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