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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Private investigator accuses Spokane Valley Councilman of problematic work history during public meeting

During a news conference last month, Spokane Valley City Councilman Al Merkel said an independent investigation cleared him of “legal wrongdoing” related to his interaction with city staff. A private investigator accused Merkel at a public meeting Tuesday of a problematic work history and harassment during his time with a past employer.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

A private investigator accused Spokane Valley City Councilman Al Merkel at a public meeting Tuesday of a problematic work history and harassment during his time with a past employer.

Ted Pulver, a Post Falls-based private investigator with prior experience in law enforcement, raised his concerns during the meeting’s public comment period.

Pulver has a history of conducting investigations in the region and is probably best known for discovering information that led to the revelation former NAACP Spokane chapter leader Rachel Dolezal was lying about her racial identity, which was also identified by a concurrent investigation conducted by the Coeur d’Alene Press.

Pulver was the first to speak during the regular weekly city council meeting and was not able to finish his statement before his allotted time for comments ran out. He sat in the front row of the meeting chambers for the entirety of the meeting, directly across from Merkel on the dais.

Merkel called Pulver’s accusation “ridiculous” and said Pulver has been harassing him and his family.

The bulk of Pulver’s investigation, and subsequent findings, focused on Merkel’s time in top administrative roles at Sequoia Detox Centers.

Pulver said he interviewed past and present leaders at the service facility where Merkel worked as chief financial officer and then chief executive officer for the clinic. Merkel was eventually let go, Pulver alleged.

Sequoia Detox Centers founder and owner Dr. James Knutson has not returned requests for comment.

Pulver said in an interview that he believes Merkel’s entire stint with Sequoia was plagued by controversy, starting with his transition from neighborhood advocate against the clinic to his hiring as chief financial officer just before the clinic opened.

In the years leading up to Sequoia’s opening in 2021, Merkel was a vocal opponent to the facility establishing itself in the Valley’s Ponderosa neighborhood. He’s a lifelong resident of the neighborhood and helped organize residents into a loose coalition who worked to prevent the clinic from going up.

The neighbors were able to reach an agreement with Sequoia Detox Centers that addressed most of their concerns amidst legal challenges led by those Ponderosa residents and read a statement to that effect when it came before the Valley’s contracted hearing examiner.

“It doesn’t say we support,” Merkel told The Spokesman-Review at the time, “but that we’ve come to a place that we can accept under the conditions that have been stated.”

Merkel joined Sequoia Detox Centers the same month the debate between the neighborhood and clinic ended, in November 2019. What is not clear is how he went from opposing the project to joining the team.

Merkel was a candidate for Spokane Valley City Council in 2019, a race he eventually lost. He unsuccessfully ran for the council in 2017 and has long been a voice against development in the community.

Pulver also accused Merkel of engaging in a pattern of harassment and disparaging behavior toward female employees, pointing to a Spokane County Superior Court lawsuit filed by a female employee who alleged the same thing, as well as withheld wages, breach of contract and retaliation.

Merkel is now the lone party in the lawsuit, after co-defendant Sequoia Detox Centers was dismissed from the case in mid-May, according to court records. It appears a settlement was reached between the woman who filed the lawsuit and the clinic, and Pulver claimed it was in the range of $100,000 at Tuesday’s meeting.

The attorneys representing the former employee did not return a request for comment ahead of publication. The woman who filed the lawsuit declined to comment.

Merkel has maintained in recent months that he was not aware of the details of the lawsuit, and that he was only tangentially involved in the case as he was the CEO at the time of the events .

Pulver declined to identify who hired him to look into Merkel, only stating he was presenting his findings at the request of the “ailing senior citizen” who hired him.

During Merkel’s public comment period, a time when council members are able to speak freely, he addressed Pulver’s remarks only for a moment. Merkel was the only council member to take the opportunity to provide council comments.

“Earlier, there were some significant, ridiculous comments about my previous history by a person who’s been calling and harassing my family for several weeks,” Merkel said. “This seems to be the price of public service for me, and it’s one that I will continue to endure. But it’s unfortunate.”

Aside from his statement, Merkel’s only visible reactions to the accusations were a handful of quizzical eyebrow raises and contorted faces.

Merkel issued a news release May 23 stating his family was a victim of harassing calls from Pulver, who was asking “outrageous and unfounded questions, including whether Mr. Merkel married one of his family members (which of course is a ridiculous lie),” the release states.

“This is an appalling and unacceptable attempt to intimidate and discredit me and my family, a continuation of the campaign to silence me not through debate, but through continual ‘investigations’ meant to distract the public with lies and ad hominem attacks,” Merkel said in a written statement included in the release. “These baseless attacks are not just an affront to me, but to the principles of democracy and decency that we all hold dear.”

Merkel concluded the release by reassuring constituents he remains committed to his responsibilities as a councilman, “vowing that such underhanded tactics will not deter him from his work,” the release states.

Pulver’s remarks Tuesday sparked a back and forth between Merkel supporter and frequent City Council meeting attendee Mike Dolan, who interrupted Pulver during his allotted 3 minutes to loudly ask if Pulver’s statements were appropriate for a public comment period.

Before every public comment period at the weekly meetings, Mayor Pam Haley reads a reminder to attendees that comments must be civil and must be related to “matters within the jurisdiction of the city government.” Any comments outside those parameters, disruptive behavior or “individual, personal attacks regarding matters unrelated to city business,” could lead the mayor and the council to end that person’s public comment opportunity.

Haley responded to Dolan’s interjection, reminding the crowd they are not allowed to interrupt during public comments.

Dolan and Pulver shared a terse exchange as Pulver left the podium, which was interrupted by Haley and Councilwoman Jessica Yaeger.

“Excuse me, can we have …” Yaeger said, before trailing off. “Stop this.”

Dolan said loudly to the room that it was “completely inappropriate” for the council to allow Pulver to make his statements. As he continued to share his disappointment and anger, Haley told him he needed to “sit down or leave.”

“I’m leaving right now,” Dolan said, as Haley moved forward with the meeting and called the next speaker who signed up for public comment.