Shaking his head under direct questioning before the Ethics Commission on Wednesday, Mayor David Condon repeatedly denied that he had lied to city lawmakers about his reasons for ousting former Police Chief Frank Straub nearly three years ago.
Condon’s appearance came in response to the last remaining complaint born in the fallout of that ouster, which sparked lawsuits, an internal investigation and a failed recall effort. Addressing the commission, Condon said his decision in September 2015 had nothing to do with claims of sexual harassment by a former police spokeswoman months before.
“(The claims) were not part of the decision,” said Condon in his testimony to the six-member volunteer panel, instead pointing to two letters indicating the department brass had turned against Straub. “You remember stuff, sure, but that wasn’t part of the decision.”
The complaint, which alleges dishonesty, came from former City Council President Joe Shogan, who told members the mayor had never had to publicly account for his decision regarding Straub. Previous ethics complaints were settled or dismissed, the recall petition was tossed for lack of evidence and a lawsuit tied to the delayed release of records revealing the complaint was settled with a former Spokane police detective.
“It’s up to you to determine if this mayor is held accountable for his actions,” Shogan said. “He never has been. This is the last chance, it rests with you.”
Condon’s attorney, Jim King, said the basis for the complaint was not rooted in fact, but rather the opinion of Spokane City Councilwoman Karen Stratton. In a closed-door session of the City Council the day before Straub’s removal, Stratton asked whether the decision was related to Monique Cotton, the former police spokeswoman who – a subsequent records request revealed – had approached Condon and his administration about harassment four months prior. The mayor responded “No.”
“There is no evidence, in terms of contemporaneous statements, documents or testimony of people that were with the mayor when that decision was forced upon him” that he was thinking about Cotton, King said.
Straub was forced out of office Sept. 22, 2015. A wrongful termination lawsuit, dismissed by a U.S. District Court judge in 2016, is under review by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The records sought by The Spokesman-Review and released in November, after the mayor’s historic re-election, showed Cotton had alleged sexual harassment but did not consent to a formal human resources investigation into her allegations. The administration quickly moved Cotton to the Parks Department following the meeting in the spring.
Stratton, who signed an affidavit before the hearing indicating she believed Condon was dishonest in a closed-door meeting with the City Council the day before Straub’s ouster, repeated that claim before the commission Wednesday.
“We were kind of surrounded with all this information about Monique Cotton before, during and after that question was asked,” Stratton said.
Stratton denied, under questioning from Condon’s attorney, that her belief Condon was dishonest had anything to do with politics, though she noted that the mayor actively campaigned against her in the election the year the Straub news broke.
“I’m not a political opponent of his. I don’t know what that means,” Stratton said.
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart was subpoenaed to testify by Shogan. He said he believed what the mayor said at that meeting was truthful, but remained dubious about the mayor’s honesty at a news conference the next day when he was asked if there had been any “formal complaints” of harassment against Straub.
“I don’t regard lying to the public to be a semantic nuance,” said Stuckart. The judge’s ruling in the dismissal of the Condon recall effort hinged in part on how the question was posed at the news conference announcing Straub’s departure.
Stuckart said he had “no beef” with the mayor for his answer in the meeting with the council.
A subsequent independent investigation, requested by the mayor’s office and the Spokane City Council, concluded that “Cotton was not a factor in the mayor’s decision to ask for Chief Straub’s resignation. Ms. Cotton’s sexual harassment allegations also were not a factor in the Mayor’s decision.” The report also found the release of records tied to the Cotton case was intentionally delayed by members of Condon’s administration until after he was re-elected.
Amina Fields, a local attorney and member of the volunteer Ethics Commission, tried to question Condon whether he’d been advised by legal counsel to deny Cotton’s allegations having ties to his decision to demand Straub’s resignation. King objected, pointing to the ongoing lawsuit between Straub and the city that is scheduled for a hearing before a panel of judges of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle on June 8.
Milton Rowland, a local attorney advising the Ethics Commission in the Condon matter, said he didn’t believe the mayor could answer the question due to attorney-client privilege.
The Ethics Commission, after hearing testimony, deferred deliberation on the case. A date was not scheduled for the deliberations, but is expected sometime later this month at the earliest.
If found in violation of the ethics code, Condon could face fines or a letter of reprimand. City Administrator Theresa Sanders agreed to pay a $75 fine for a violation tied to her public answers about the Cotton transfer.
Shogan said at the end of the hearing he believed he’d been given a fair chance to make his argument.
“All the facts are out there,” Shogan said. “I won, just by having the hearing.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.