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Former Spokane City Attorney Nancy Isserlis named to Washington panel overseeing campaign disclosures

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 10, 2020

Nancy Isserlis speaks to a reporter following her appointment as Spokane city attorney in this March 2012 photo. Isserlis has been appointed to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, an agency responsible for policing campaign finance laws. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Nancy Isserlis speaks to a reporter following her appointment as Spokane city attorney in this March 2012 photo. Isserlis has been appointed to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, an agency responsible for policing campaign finance laws. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Nancy Isserlis, the former Spokane city attorney who was at the center of a public records scandal at City Hall, has been selected by Gov. Jay Inslee as one of the public servants overseeing campaign transparency in Washington.

The appointment to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission was announced in a news release Friday. The five-member commission is responsible for tracking campaign donations and spending in Washington political races.

“I’m looking forward to my service on the commission. I think it’s important work,” Isserlis said by phone Friday. She said that work is particularly important with the increasing use of social media platforms to deliver campaign messaging, and the transparency needed in reporting the source of that messaging and its content.

Isserlis was named city attorney by Mayor David Condon in 2012, and took on several high-profile legal cases amid transitioning the legal office away from concerns prompted by the review of the police killing of Otto Zehm, which later resulted in the criminal conviction of Police Officer Karl F. Thompson. In 2015, Isserlis became embroiled in the delayed release of public records alleging sexual harassment against former Police Chief Frank Straub.

An independent review of the case concluded that Isserlis, along with City Administrator Theresa Sanders, had “intentionally withheld information from the City Clerk about the existence of the documents at issue with the intent and purpose of delaying the production of those records until after (Condon’s re-election).” Both Isserlis and Sanders disputed the findings of the report, and Isserlis – who left her job as city attorney about two months before the report’s releaselater threatened legal action, calling the findings of the report defamatory. Isserlis declined at the time to be interviewed by the investigator, along with several other employees in the office who cited attorney-client privilege.

Isserlis said Friday her position on the findings of the report hadn’t changed.

“I think everybody learned a lot from that,” Isserlis said of the incident. “I think the city has taken some steps to improve the public records issues they had.”

The Spokesman-Review, and subsequently several other area media outlets, made requests in September 2015 for records related to claims that Straub had sexually harassed a department spokeswoman. Isserlis, according to the report, directed the City Clerk’s office to send all documents to the legal department for review due to “potential pending litigation.” That hold continued until Nov. 10, a few days after Condon was elected to a second term, according to the report.

After leaving city employment, Isserlis returned to the Spokane law firm of Winston & Cashatt. The news release notes Isserlis, who is a graduate of the Gonzaga University School of Law, has worked for or chaired multiple election campaigns and works on the boards of multiple local nonprofits, including Pioneer Human Services and the Endowment for Equal Justice.

Inslee praised Isserlis for her work in the community and knowledge of Public Disclosure Commission rules in the statement announcing her appointment. Later Friday, in a telephone interview, the governor said he was unaware of the issue involving public records prior to his decision on appointment.

“We’ll ask her about it,” Inslee said Friday. “I’m told that her view of it is, if there were issues at the city, she was more of a positive, problem-solver than a creator of that. That’s what I’m told third-hand.”

“I’m glad we got someone from Eastern Washington,” Inslee continued. “We’ll ask her about it, and I’ll try to figure out if there’s anything there to be concerned about or not.”

Appointments to the commission require the consent of the Washington Senate, according to state law.

Isserlis said she was contacted by outgoing Commissioner Anne Levinson about the position. Levinson’s five-year term ended in 2019. Levinson, in a statement, called Isserlis “a terrific choice” for the panel.

As a member of the commission, Isserlis will be prohibited from making donations to candidates during her five-year period of service. According to PDC filings, Isserlis has been a frequent contributor to Democratic candidates, including Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Lieutenant Gov. Cyrus Habib, state Sen. Andy Billig and Rep. Marcus Riccelli. She gave $125 to Inslee for his campaign in 2012.

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