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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shawn Vestal: Probe details extensive communications, favors between police chief and business group

Shawn Vestal  (DAN PELLE)

When Chud Wendle – the combative leader of a group of property owners who regularly criticizes City Council members over crime and homelessness – wanted a special report from the police department about crimes committed by transients, he didn’t file a public records request.

Nor did Wendle file such a request – which is how the public usually is required to obtain public information from the department, often followed by a wait – when he wanted details about the department’s use of Narcan, used to treat overdoses in emergencies.

Or statistics about a rise in shoplifting.

Or mapping crime.

Or an analysis on the City Council’s “response to defunding the police.”

In those instances and many more over the past two years – according to an illuminating investigation by the city’s police ombudsman – Wendle or his associates in the Spokane Business & Commercial Property Owners Council went directly to Chief Craig Meidl, and Meidl got them what they wanted.

Similarly, when Wendle or an associate wanted to report that a man had been spotted walking around with a machete or that a transient had thrown a rock through a window, they did not call Crime Check or 911.

They reached out to Meidl, who got someone right on it.

The most important aspect of the first independent investigation conducted by the Office of the Police Ombudsman is not its main subject, which is the question of whether body-camera footage from a murder investigation was improperly released to Wendle in order to orchestrate an election-season smear in fall 2021 of Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson. Wilkerson had upset Meidl and others in the department by asking for a search warrant before turning over security camera footage from a group home she owns.

On that matter, the report shows that the footage was released in conjunction with the public records laws, and that Wendle likely heard about the case initially from a former City Hall staffer. It also shows he had a series of direct communications with Meidl on the matter, and that Meidl would not answer some questions about the issue because Wendle told him the information in confidence.

The investigation also throws cold water on Meidl’s explanation for how word about the footage got out before the investigation was closed. It depicts the chief and other key figures in the department refusing to conduct a real investigation into Wilkerson’s complaint and obstructing the ombudsman’s efforts to do so himself.

Still, the most illuminating portion of the 46-page report is its detailing of the “robust” level of continual communications and favor-granting between Meidl and Wendle (or Wendle’s associates).

Over a period of roughly two years, the two men emailed each other hundreds and hundreds of times – more than once a day on average.

Meidl provided information about cases and suspects, had special reports compiled, performed document redactions personally in some instances, and shared information for “lobbying purposes” that the report characterized as “less readily available” to the public.

Sometimes, the chief said in interviews for the report by the Office of Police Ombudsman, he would provide Wendle’s group with investigative leads that he wouldn’t share publicly, because he trusted “they would not leak that information.”

He told investigators he did this because he shared the group’s efforts to make downtown safer and wanted to “honor” that.

“When asked about the hundreds, if not thousands, of emails between” them, Meidl told the ombudsman’s office that it was based on a “mutually beneficial relationship based on creating a safer downtown” and a desire to help give Wendle’s group a voice, the report said.

Wendle and other members of his business organization have, in the past few years, emailed City Council members continually, blaming them for crime and homelessness and advocating for more aggressive police response, criticizing them for not supporting Mayor Nadine Woodward, threatening recalls, and accusing them of being anti-police or insufficiently supportive of SPD. The organization has organized public events, and operates an active Facebook page where – the report says – current and former SPD officers have weighed in.

Meidl and Wendle declined to answer questions about the report. But in the chief’s emails, he repeatedly and effusively praised the group’s efforts. In several separate emails cited in the report, Meidl told them their “passion” was “invigorating,” their work was “greatly appreciated,” and their efforts were “tremendous.”

He once sent them an inspirational quote about “the ability of a small group of dedicated people to change the world.”

“In light of all the blood sweat and tears you all have committed to improving our downtown core, I know my words of appreciation will ring shallow,” Meidl wrote. “But I am still compelled to express my sincere and heartfelt appreciation and shudder to think of where we would be without your efforts.”

One of the members on the email chain responded: “band of brothers.”

Meidl – quoting the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V – responded, “We few we happy few …”

‘It’s unethical’

The report suggests that the council’s efforts derived a wealth of support and information directly – though secretly – from the chief.

“What the OPO investigation revealed is there was a shadow public advocacy campaign the chief was running with Chud Wendle,” said Council President Breean Beggs, who said he was “outraged” by the findings.

Beggs and other City Council members said the report shows repeated, improper instances of Wendle receiving unusual, first-hand service from the chief that no other citizen could expect, providing special attention and political favoritism with public resources.

“When you’re providing information that you’re not providing to everyone else and providing services you’re not providing to everyone else … it just reeks of undue influence,” Beggs said.

Councilwoman Karen Stratton said it’s improper for a public servant to show such favoritism.

“I think it’s unethical,” she said. “My seventy-something constituent in West Central who’s had his garage broken into three times without any response (from the police) deserves that same level of service.”

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear sounded a similar note. She emphasized that she thought that Wilkerson had simply exercised her constitutional rights in the matter – echoing a common theme in the report from almost everyone interviewed at City Hall – and said it’s important for people in positions of public authority to treat their constituents even-handedly.

“What would be the likelihood of the chief being able to do that with anyone else asking him those kinds of questions?” she said. “Nobody else gets that kind of treatment.”

‘The way forward’

The very fact that the ombudsman was able to conduct its own investigation is significant. The office was created in 2008, in the reform-minded wake of the Otto Zehm debacle, after voters overwhelmingly supported the creation of a system of independent civilian oversight for police complaints.

The independence of that office has been continually challenged and limited by SPD – both the unions and administration. The city laws governing the office are actually built into the city’s contract with the Police Guild – a bizarre situation in which the overseers are controlled by the overseen.

Currently, when the ombudsman receives a complaint, it is forwarded to the SPD’s internal affairs unit for investigation. The ombudsman’s office then reviews that investigation, and certifies it – or declines to – on the basis of its timeliness, thoroughness and objectivity.

It can write closing reports on the complaints and make policy recommendations, but may not identify any SPD officer involved, or draw conclusions about whether laws or policies were violated, or comment on disciplinary matters.

(In the current report, no one is identified by name and no one with the ombudsman’s office provided the identities; the context of the events described, audio records of interviews, past public reporting, and other sources make it clear who the main parties are.)

If the ombudsman ultimately declines to certify SPD’s own IA investigation, the ombudsman office can conduct its own investigation or hire a third party to do so, but only after the chief has made a final determination regarding discipline. In this matter, the ombudsman commission voted last June to conduct an independent investigation – the first in the city’s history.

For Ombudsman Bart Logue, the report represents a watershed moment. Logue has often been at odds with the department and its leadership over their efforts to tie his hands in investigations or prevent him from looking into complaints.

In the current case, the ombudsman declined three times to certify the IA’s investigation into the Wilkerson complaint, repeatedly asking the IA to do a more thorough probe. Meidl then refused an appeal to do so. In his refusal, Meidl alleged “City Council involvement” in the process and questioned the ombudsman office’s objectivity, the report said.

The ombudsman lacks the authority to compel testimony, and that shows. Five police department employees with direct knowledge of events refused to participate, as did Wendle. Five Spokane County employees refused to participate. Prosecutor Larry Haskell didn’t return calls seeking his participation, the report said.

Still, the office produced a report that details the continual, secretive communications between the chief and Wendle; tracks the origin of the body-cam story through the system, showing that it was seen as potential political fodder at City Hall from the start; and established the fact that it is able to conduct its own separate investigation when the police department refuses to.

The current report also makes clear that there is a lack of consistency and understanding of how to handle public information at SPD and City Hall. It recommends that all requests for public information be handled through the formal records-request process and that SPD standardize its process for determining when a case is closed, among other recommendations.

“For the first one, I think it came out OK,” Logue said. “It did show some gaps in the system.”

Those limits – the ombudsman’s inability to name names and draw conclusions – are frustrating to some on the City Council. But Logue points out that the limits were voted in by the council, and that it’s possible to improve the system from here.

“Let’s work on the way forward,” he said. “We’re not so far from getting it right.”

The video

The case began with a killing in Browne’s Addition in August 2020. Later on the day of the death, with the suspect still at large, officers knocked at Wilkerson’s group home and asked for security camera footage.

The body-camera footage shows what the officers say, but not how Wilkerson responds. After they ask her for the footage and are apparently told she wanted to check on the legal issues first, they walk away and one officer tells the other that she said she was “not too enthused” about helping them.

Wilkerson denies using those words. She has said that asking for a warrant before releasing the footage was important to protect the rights of the residents in her group home. Officers returned three days later with a warrant and obtained the footage; by that point, the suspect had been arrested. He was later convicted.

From the moment Wilkerson asked for a warrant, the ombudsman’s report shows, many people inside SPD were upset and disappointed, and word of it spread throughout the department. Meidl would later describe Wilkerson’s refusal to immediately provide footage as the “true tragedy” of the case.

The department also forwarded information about the case to the Woodward administration two days after the incident; an unidentified member of the administration responded with advice about how to “play” the story.

“Let’s play this straight and wisely; formal request only if needed, clear discussion with (Wilkerson) about a warrant and the public nature of them,” the message reads. “If the officer’s impression of non-cooperation was not 100% clear, and we may not need the footage anyway, then let’s just assume good intentions by (Wilkerson). The last thing we need is (more) council trouble. However, if we do need the footage, then we proceed professionally.”

How the information about the incident and the existence of the body-camera footage reached Wendle, while the case was still open a full year later, was a matter of dispute. Wilkerson alleged it came from within the SPD. Meidl said he’d been told by Wendle that it came from someone on City Council staff, but that he wouldn’t betray Wendle’s confidence by saying who. Wendle said it came from the administration.

The ombudsman’s report said that during the investigation “it became clear” that the initial source of the information, either directly or indirectly, was an employee of the City Council – Scotty Nicol, a former administration employee who worked for a time as Stratton’s staff member before leaving to run for the Legislature as a Republican against incumbent Marcus Riccelli.

In his interview with the ombudsman’s office, Nicol said Wilkerson “bragged about making the police get a search warrant,” and described her manner as “braggadocious.”

The report said that Nicol was the only person outside of SPD who objected to Wilkerson’s behavior. It said he had been admonished in the past by at least one other city official for “releasing or spreading information to undermine them.”

Efforts to contact Nicol for comment were unsuccessful. He acknowledged in his interview with the ombudsman’s office that he spoke to people about Wilkerson, but couldn’t recall whether that included Wendle, whom he said he considers a friend. Emails obtained by investigators show Nicol provided Wendle with information regularly, and that “they vented to each other about their distaste for certain City employees.”

Of the 31 people interviewed, only Meidl, Wendle and Nicol said Wilkerson was bragging about the case. She has denied that.

Wendle reached out to Meidl directly in August 2021, about a year after the murder, to ask about the incident; Meidl responded that he had heard about it, and that he would “look around to see if (he could) get more information” and would keep Wendle posted.

Two days later, Meidl reviewed the body-cam footage again. Two days after that, Wendle made a public records request for the footage.

That request included updated and corrected information from Wendle’s first communication with Meidl, including the case number, corrected date and officer’s name. His first request was denied on Sept. 14, 2021, because the case was not yet formally considered closed; a second request on Sept. 29, made after frequent contact among Meidl, Wendle and the department’s records officer, was granted.

Before that request was granted, Meidl had reached out to an SPD employee to check on the status of the case and to close it if it had been forwarded to the prosecutor. The SPD employee later told the OPO that it had been the department’s practice before this to leave the case open until the criminal case was resolved in court; Meidl said that he considered a case closed once the bulk of investigative work was complete.

Meidl also said that, though the department’s ethics guidelines call for officers to “observe the confidentiality of information available to them through any source,” and to only release information through official channels, that these are only guidelines and that the First Amendment protects officers’ ability to speak to others.

The report makes it clear that even if the story about Wilkerson’s boasting were true, that Wendle’s records requests show that he received detailed information elsewhere – given that Wilkerson was unlikely to be bragging about specifics such as the case number and the officer’s name.

The footage was released to Wendle in October 2021, and 10 days later it was the subject of a report on the Jason Rantz conservative radio show in Seattle – where it was spun as the tale of an anti-police African American politician refusing to help solve a murder. Rantz was on Fox News shortly thereafter, telling the same story.

Wilkerson, who was up for re-election, though uncontested, received a wave of criticism after the report, including people calling her a “disgrace” and “shameful,” and urging her to resign.

‘Toxic and angry’

The continual emails to City Council members and others on a large distribution list from Wendle, associate Sheldon Jackson and others in the business owners council have become a regular feature of life at City Hall in recent years.

It’s part of the group’s overall effort to use social media, direct lobbying and political pressure to call for solutions to crime, homelessness and disorder downtown.

Wendle, who is the executive director of the Hutton settlement and owner of several commercial properties in town, is also a member of Hello for Good, a different group of local business leaders that has advocated for homelessness solutions and has supported Woodward’s efforts.

Where that group has generally taken a constructive tone and has spent time and resources identifying potential solutions, Wendle and Jackson have often been more combative.

The stream of email messages often detail, in granular detail, incidents of homelessness, crime and drug use downtown. They blame, in no uncertain terms, council members, or state lawmakers, for the problems in the city, and paint a picture of a city all but burning down. Frequent social media posts echo the same concerns: criticism of Camp Hope and the state’s approach there, along with support for the mayor’s Trent shelter.

The communications are often sharply personal and insulting. Beggs referred to the emails as “wacky.” Stratton said that Wendle often “gets toxic and angry.”

The council members said that before the ombudsman’s report, they had not realized the degree to which the email campaign was supported by Meidl. They interact with Meidl at least somewhat regularly, after all, and said they’d prefer he be direct with them with his questions and criticisms, and that the public be aware of those interactions.

Beggs said that he’s noticed in the past that Wendle has emailed him directly with very detailed information from within the department. In one instance, Wendle seemed to know a lot, at a granular level, about the department’s vehicle fleet, at a time when the council was considering making changes that the chief opposed.

“I thought, ‘Wow. He’s really tied into someone,’ ” Beggs said. “My conclusion after reading the report is that it was Chief Meidl I was emailing with. If Chief Meidl and I are going to have a discussion about something, it should be in public.”

He and others on the council majority also resist the general, overall critique that they’ve been anti-police, or are to blame for crime.

“The most common theme is to blame the council for crime and a lack of police enforcement,” he said.

“What have we done? What law did we pass? There’s nothing. We’ve given them millions more in their budget every year. We’ve added officers. We’ve spent millions on vehicles. Whatever they’ve requested, we’ve basically given them.”