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'End of Story' 

Condon administration aims to close the controversial Frank Straub chapter — but last week's scathing report has irrevocably changed the narrative

click to enlarge Mayor David Condon strongly disagrees with the investigator's conclusion that his administration intentionally withheld records until after the election — but he says the city will reform its policies. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Mayor David Condon strongly disagrees with the investigator's conclusion that his administration intentionally withheld records until after the election — but he says the city will reform its policies.

On the seventh floor of Spokane City Hall, three city councilmembers sit lined up like a tribunal, facing a thicket of cameras and reporters. Every single person guilty of withholding public documents, City Council President Ben Stuckart says, should resign immediately.

"I would if I were [City Administrator Theresa Sanders]. I would resign. I wouldn't stick around. That's just me," Stuckart says. "That's how I'd act in that situation."

Other community groups joined the chorus of outrage. The Peace and Justice Action League and the local National Organization for Women have called for Condon's resignation.

Last Wednesday, independent investigator Kris Cappel released her report about the forced resignation of police chief Frank Straub and the transfer of police spokeswoman Monique Cotton to the parks department after she made sexual harassment allegations against Straub.

The report took more than six months to complete. Just the summary weighed in at 126 pages.

And the findings were brutal.

Cappel concluded that the city "deliberately concealed Ms. Cotton's sexual harassment allegations against the Chief, and affirmatively misrepresented the circumstances of her transfer to Parks" — though Cappel found no evidence that Cotton's sexual harassment claims were true. She found that the city's human resources department "routinely overlooked" its own procedures.

She listed numerous times the city had been warned about Straub's abusive way of managing by "fear and intimidation" before action was finally taken.

Most damningly, she concluded that Sanders and former City Attorney Nancy Isserlis had "intentionally withheld" explosive documents until after Condon's re-election.

For his part, the mayor didn't call a press conference. Instead, he sent out an email from his campaign titled "Closing a Chapter and Moving Forward for Spokane."

The message rejected Cappel's allegations against his administration and apologized for the turmoil, but mostly hurried to move past the storyline that had dominated headlines for nearly a year.

"Today, we in city government can finally get back to doing what you hired us to do," Condon wrote. By Monday, he'd already announced his pick for the next police chief.

Yet the report has already sparked new revelations, new outrage and possibly even new lawsuits.

WHERE THERE'S SMOKE...

As Condon made the media circuit after the release of the Cappel report, at times he seemed partially apologetic — if not for the intent of his administration's actions, then for his execution. He recognizes the need for better policies, though he notes the report found the city had followed its existing sexual harassment procedures when handling the Cotton allegations.

At other times, he's been defensive: No, he told the media, he won't resign or fire his staff.

Late last Friday, the Spokane Police Lieutenants and Captains Association sent a letter to Condon, chiding him for not acknowledging that he and his staff "failed to act for two years." Condon has said he wasn't aware of Straub's behavior until April of 2015, despite city attorneys and HR being repeatedly warned about Straub's abusive management style.

"I don't think to this day he realizes what his inaction caused," says Lt. Joe Walker, one of several police leaders who reported Straub's abuse and retaliation.

Condon hit back at the Lieutenants and Captains Association in a statement to the Spokesman-Review, saying he was "disappointed" they didn't approach him about Straub's behavior sooner.

At times, Condon has cast himself as another victim of all this: In his campaign letter, he noted how he's endured "repeated attacks by the media and political opponents who would rather put their own self-interests above doing what's right for Spokane."

Above all, he makes one thing clear: "I did not intentionally keep, and I believe no one in my Administration worked to keep information from the public in the public records process," Condon writes. "Period."

Sanders' statement said she was "angered and troubled" by the report, calling Cappel's conclusions "absolutely false, irresponsible and contradicted by fact." She pointed to the transcript showing that the city clerk had never been told to withhold any records.

But the clerk's office wasn't the bottleneck: The problem was the city attorney's office, Cappel concluded. While Cappel didn't find a smoking gun proving documents were withheld for political reasons, she found plenty to make her suspicious.

click to enlarge Anyone in the Condon administration guilty of withholding public records, City Council President Ben Stuckart says, should resign. - DANIEL WALTERS
  • Daniel Walters
  • Anyone in the Condon administration guilty of withholding public records, City Council President Ben Stuckart says, should resign.

A June letter from Cotton's attorney that described Cotton's sexual harassment complaint was only sent from the mayor's office to the city clerk's office on Nov. 11 — 85 days after the records were requested, eight days after the election, and less than 10 minutes before the start of an ethics committee meeting centered on allegations of dishonesty from Sanders and city spokesman Brian Coddington. Condon tells the Inlander he forwarded the letter to the city attorney's office as soon as he got it.

Cappel discovered that many of the most illuminating documents — including texts and notes concerning Cotton's conversations with Sanders about sexual harassment — sat in the city attorney's office for months. No one told the clerk they even existed until after the election.

The clerk did know about a "love you" text from Straub to Cotton, and had scheduled to release it a few days before the election. But Assistant City Attorney Pat Dalton delayed it, explaining that he needed to review it again, then went on an extended vacation. The texts didn't come out until after Condon's re-election.

In a statement last Wednesday, Dalton denied ever withholding documents for political reasons. But he did not offer an alternative explanation. It's the big black hole in the middle of the Cappel report: city attorneys — the one city office whose testimony could vindicate Condon's administration or explicitly implicate it — refused to talk to Cappel, citing concerns about attorney-client confidentiality.

Worries that the report may hurt the city in litigation aren't unfounded: Mary Schultz, Straub's attorney, stood outside of the federal courthouse scrolling through Cappel's report on her iPhone. "Look, this is an exceptional piece of evidence for us," Schultz says. She believes it will help her appeal Straub's due-process lawsuit against the city that a judge dismissed in June.

The appearance of withholding public records has also left the city at risk: Retired SPD Officer Brian Breen, whose Straub record requests also were delayed, has considered suing under the Washington Public Records Act.

And the original report, the one that had been released to the city council last Monday, was even worse, directly implicating the mayor and spokesman Brian Coddington in the coverup.

But then Cappel changed the report at the last minute — a development that could cost the mayor his city attorney pick.

A QUESTION OF INTERFERENCE

On the seventh floor of the Chase Building downtown, inside the offices of Workland & Witherspoon, Laura McAloon — Condon's city attorney pick — and former utilities director Rick Romero defend their integrity.

They were the mayor's two representatives on the joint committee overseeing the investigation. After the mayor learned that the report accused himself, Sanders and Coddington of purposefully withholding relevant records, Condon wanted to know how Cappel came to the conclusion, and why Cappel hadn't previously told the committee about the shocking allegations.

Romero and McAloon called up Cappel on Tuesday morning to ask the mayor's questions.

Soon after, Cappel chose to revise her report, removing the names of Condon and Coddington from her allegations. Stuckart pounced on the decision, accusing the mayor and McAloon of unacceptable interference with the investigation.

Last Monday, Stuckart told the Inlander that McAloon was an amazing attorney. He had her vote. Less than 24 hours later, she had lost it.

"There's no possible way that if her name is brought forward I can vote for her," Stuckart says. City Councilwoman Karen Stratton said the same thing. Stuckart already had been considering pushing for an elected city attorney on the ballot, and this just reinforced why.

But Cappel insisted that nothing inappropriate happened, noting that a conversation she'd had with City Councilman Breean Beggs had also played a role in her decision. "The decision to amend my findings was my decision and my decision alone," Cappel wrote in a letter to the committee. "No one attempted to influence me in any way."

McAloon says Stuckart never even bothered to call her before lobbing accusations.

"I don't care, frankly, whether I have the support of the council," McAloon says. "I want them to have that conversation in public, on the record, and not defame me in the newspaper."

If she becomes city attorney, McAloon says she'll examine how the office handles public records. She also sees the clear need to repair the broken mayor-council relationship.

"I think that the biggest problem right now is the lack of communication on the seventh floor," McAloon says. "And the lack of trust."

CONDON'S TRUTH

"The trust with our citizens is in the forefront of my mind," Condon told KXLY last week. "Is this a setback? Absolutely. And I apologize for that."

Last year, Sanders was fined by the city's ethics commission for falsely claiming that the city gave Cotton a raise of more than $9,000 as an "incentive" for her to move to the parks department.

Condon, meanwhile, has been battling an ethics complaint for the past six months, partly as a result of saying "no" to an Inlander reporter asking if there had been "any sexual harassment complaints lodged against [Straub]?" Condon confirmed to Cappel that he did consider Cotton's allegations to him to be a complaint.

Cappel's report reveals that Condon, Sanders and Coddington all knew about Cotton's sexual harassment allegations, and all promised her they'd keep it under wraps.

The mayor hasn't wavered in his defense of Coddington and Sanders. "Monique's move was strictly managerial," Coddington told the Inlander in September. "End of story."

The Inlander asked the mayor if he thought that statement was truthful.

"She was interviewed and hired because of her expertise for the parks department," Condon says. "It was a managerial decision to move her there."

The report revealed that Condon had personally added flattering language to the draft of the mayor's job offer letter, several days before Cotton was interviewed for the parks department position.

So, moving her was a strictly managerial decision? the Inlander asks the mayor again. End of story?

"For her, of interviewing for that position, yes," Condon says. "For why she took that job, yes."

CLOSING THE DOOR

Stratton, a frequent critic of the mayor, says the report highlighted how little Condon cared about the city employees.

Back when Stratton was a city employee, she herself had been harassed, and she says she experienced the "completely useless" city human resources department firsthand. She ended up filing a lawsuit and received a settlement from the city.

"You didn't give a damn about our employees," she says about Condon. "[You let Straub's behavior] go on for almost three years, you continue to pay a HR director over $100,000 a year to do absolutely nothing to help fix it... If we're going to have a strong mayor system, we better have a damn strong mayor."

Last Friday, a few dozen city employees pack the City Council Briefing Room, quietly murmuring about the past few days as they await a statement from the mayor.

"To the city employees, I do want to apologize for the turmoil it causes," Condon says of the release of the report. "The consternation it causes."

Condon says he's looking for the city to improve its human resources procedures. In his first term, he created My Spokane, a one-stop shop for local businesses to work with the city. Now, he wants to create something similar for city employees, so they're able to get their concerns addressed. The city will add a independent phone line, allowing employees to anonymously report harassment.

Yet Condon worries about a side effect of the report's release — that witnessing this media firestorm will make employees think twice about reporting sexual harassment in the future. Public employees, he laments to the audience of city staffers, don't have the sort of privacy they would in the private sector.

He references the Inlander reporter sitting in the audience during his talk.

"Just so you know, the Inlander is here, at this meeting," Condon says. "So, as you can see, all of our meetings and things are public, in many respects."

At the end of his comments, however, Condon politely asks the Inlander to leave the room in order for employees to feel more comfortable asking questions. As soon as the Inlander exits, Coddington, the mayor's spokesman, shuts the double doors of the briefing room, once more closing the curtain on the drama unfolding inside Spokane City Hall. ♦

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