As tensions mounted over allegations made against a City Hall contractor earlier this year, Spokane City Councilwoman Karen Stratton encouraged a local nonprofit group to send a cease-and-desist letter to Councilwoman Kate Burke, email records show.
The divisiveness surfaced publicly in May after the nonprofit, the Association of General Contractors, sent a cease-and-desist letter to Burke, who had raised concerns that the group was employing “a sexual predator” under a city contract.
Emails released by City Hall in response to a public records request show that Stratton recommended the cease-and-desist letter to Judith Gilmore, a grant program coordinator for the Association of General Contractors. Stratton acknowledged in an interview this week she gave that advice to Gilmore after the two met to discuss repeated claims regarding the employee.
Stratton said she doesn’t regret advising that her colleague be issued a cease-and-desist letter and that she did so because Burke was spreading unfounded rumors. The employee is Stratton’s cousin.
“To me, it was to stop the vicious comments and the chatter that was liable to damage the people that didn’t expect to be damaged by this,” Stratton said of her recommendation. “If you hear a rumor, and repeat it over and over again, people will start to believe it. What people will believe isn’t necessarily true.
“The point for me is that I was watching somebody who I admire, and who has been a community member for years, just come under fire,” Stratton added.
The local chapter of the National Organization of Women, however, criticized her handling of the issue.
Gilmore said she was drafting a letter to Burke addressing the issue before Stratton gave her the advice.
“Karen Stratton did not at all influence me in writing a letter,” Gilmore said. “I didn’t need anybody to tell me to write a letter.”
The employee in question worked as part of a training program run by the association, which conducted an internal investigation and determined no misconduct had occurred during his time with the organization. He has since resigned his position as an instructor.
The Spokesman-Review is not naming the man because there have been no firsthand confirmations of the behavior Burke reported to Gilmore during the meeting at City Hall in April.
The suggestion came after a flurry of emails between Gilmore and Stratton on April 7, two days after Gilmore and another member of the association met with Burke to discuss her concerns.
Burke advised Gilmore in an email after the meeting that Gilmore should have “(a)n immediate preemptive conversation with the person in question, in which it is made clear that if these claims are true … funding from the City and other sources is in danger.” The organization met quickly with its legal team and made accommodations for the man not to teach the class by himself, according to emails.
But Gilmore wrote she heard from sources within City Hall that even after that meeting, Burke continued to suggest that the organization was employing “a sexual predator.” She wrote Stratton after a meeting in person on April 7 to discuss the matter, saying that “I can tell you that I intend to address this w/the individual – not only is (Burke) misrepresenting the instructor at this time, but also ME & I can’t let that lie w/o response.”
“She needs a cease-and-desist letter from all of you,” Stratton wrote. One was sent from Gilmore the next day, followed by letters from attorneys representing the Association of General Contractors and the instructor.
Burke said she was unaware Stratton made the suggestion.
“Karen can do what she feels is right,” Burke said. “I can’t speak to another person’s motivations.”
City Council President Ben Stuckart, who has been critical of Burke’s contact with Gilmore – particularly her suggestion that the city’s funding, which totaled $30,000 this year, could be cut off if the issue wasn’t addressed – said he also was unaware Stratton encouraged the cease-and-desist approach. But he said he agreed with Stratton’s suggestion.
“If somebody was coming after me, I wouldn’t find that to be an unreasonable action,” Stuckart said. “You had somebody on the council misrepresenting what the council’s position was.”
Stuckart asked Burke in an email after the cease-and-desist letters were sent if she had made any explicit claims about city funding.
“The letters said you told them that you had the council votes to cut their funding,” Stuckart wrote Burke on April 30. “I am seeking clarification if you did indeed tell them you had enough votes to cut their funding?”
Burke responded about an hour later in an email: “I absolutely did not tell them that there were votes to take their funding away,” Burke wrote. “I did however say there were council members that were concerned about the situation.”
Gilmore said funding cuts were discussed in the meeting and that Burke told her she’d met with other council members who agreed that funding should be reviewed. Multiple emails sent by council members after the cease-and-desist letters arrived, however, express solidarity with Gilmore.
Associated General Contractors is an advocacy and workforce development group founded in 1921 to promote the construction trades.
“Given that lawyers now seem to be involved I will be circumspect in this email,” City Councilman Breean Beggs wrote to Gilmore April 20. “But know that I personally support your work and appreciate all that you have done to assist in re-entry and workforce development for people.”
Councilman Mike Fagan wrote to Gilmore saying he would not have approached the situation the same way Burke did.
“What happened to due process and investigation? I got your six Judith, and if I happen to hear something, we’ll let you know,” Fagan wrote to Gilmore.
At a City Council meeting in May following a news story about the cease-and-desist letters Burke had received, several members of the local chapter of the National Organization of Women accused the council and The Spokesman-Review of covering up for the man and not taking the accusations of women seriously. Stratton addressed them, saying she was “disappointed and saddened” by the conversation and insinuations that the panel did not care about the charges.
Stratton reiterated those comments this week, maintaining it was not the City Council’s job to threaten funding based on allegations that had not been investigated fully.
“We had a council member who approached a nonprofit organization in this community that’s doing good work,” Stratton said. “You had all of these allegations, with demands that were above and beyond her role as a City Council member. To me, that was the first step in, ‘This is going south quick.’ You just can’t do that.”
Autumn Reed, president of the local chapter of NOW, criticized Stratton for “admonishing a large group of women and allies” after they spoke to the council May 14.
“Council member Stratton’s involvement in this matter is both ‘saddening and disappointing,’ ” Reed said in a statement. “She had ample opportunity to sit down with council member Burke and work towards a much better outcome than the one we continue to see unfold before us. I hope this serves as a reminder for council member Stratton that when it comes to common goals, we must work together and not against each other.”
Burke, Stuckart and Stratton all said they were working to move past the issue and focus on the council’s legislative priorities.
“I don’t feel that this was irreparable; I look at us as a big dysfunctional family,” Stratton said, adding that she would handle the situation the same way in the future. “I think the council member now knows how far I can be pushed until I’ll get involved, step in, throw in my opinions, and advice to people.”
Burke said her own actions were appropriate.
“I’m just here to serve the people in my district, the way I think is right,” Burke said. “Some people don’t like it.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.