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Jim West- Twin Peeks at West 

by Kevin Taylor


Maybe the way space aliens do it is the best way after all: They suck you up with the tractor beam, probe you and then set you back down with only a hazy memory that anything weird happened at all.


By contrast, the two local groups attempting to probe Mayor Jim West are hardly so tidy.


One, the FBI, isn't even allowed to say they are probing the mayor, even though everybody knows they are. The other, a citizen's panel appointed by the city attorney, has already created a swirling paper storm -- just call it the "evil vortex," as one retired judge did -- of gossip, rumor, outrage, sworn affidavits and show-cause orders ... and this is before they even get around to probing the mayor.


The citizen's panel looking into questions of improper computer use or job offers by West has been the target of lightning bolts from the moment it was proposed. Current and former city council members questioned the authority of City Attorney Mike Connelly to assemble the panel in the first place, and they have questioned the independence of a panel that answers to the guy who answers to West.


The electricity has only amped up as time goes by. On Monday, former city councilman Steve Eugster, who crafted much of the strong mayor charter, filed a show-cause order in court seeking to disband the panel, saying it has no legal authority. A hearing is scheduled for July 15 in Spokane County Superior Court.


Eugster challenged Connelly's authority during the panel's first meeting on June 24, asking why a personnel issue -- typically immune from open-meeting laws -- was being debated in public.


Connelly conceded "the authority is not crystal clear," but added that "We are looking at the conduct of an elected official" and noted a strong sentiment around the city for open hearings.


About 30 residents and reporters squeezed into a basement meeting room at City Hall for Friday's first meeting. At the end, they were treated to a red-faced, high-speed rant aimed at the Spokesman-Review by panel member Phil Thompson, a retired appellate court judge.


"In just two weeks on this panel, I have been drawn into the evil vortex of city politics," Thompson boomed.


Thompson cited a front-page story in the June 15 Spokesman that quoted City Council members Cherie Rodgers and Bob Apple -- as well as Rita Amunrud of a group seeking a recall of West -- saying that Thompson had a conflict of interest because he was chief judge of the state Court of Appeals in 1993 that upheld the dismissal of a wrongful death lawsuit against West.


He thundered that Judge George Shields wrote the opinion with judges Roy Munson and Dennis Sweeney concurring. None of those judges was named in the story.


Thompson was so exercised by what he called "an attack on my integrity" that even the day before the meeting he assembled a sworn affidavit detailing his encounters with West.


As chief of the appellate court, he had "absolutely no involvement" with the ruling on the lawsuit and said the decision was made two years before he ever met West.


Thompson's rant was an entertaining capper on the panel's inaugural get-together in which it was announced -- to groans from the four remaining members -- that they would plow through some 12,000 e-mails and vouchers. Connelly cheerfully said the total could reach 60,000 documents.


Also by Friday, one of the panelists, Tom Trulove, chair of the economics department at Eastern Washington University, had already bailed out. On Monday, Trulove said his 93-year-old mother is in failing health and, as the panel has grown increasingly complex and controversial, it would take away too much of his time.


"At first, I thought it would be a fairly short process: get in, look at the records and get out," Trulove says. Now, he says, "This thing is going to take a lot of work -- and plus you get your integrity attacked, too. If that's the case, maybe I should just run for mayor of Cheney again."


Connelly, despite repeated phone calls and a trip to his office Monday, was a voice unheard from on such questions as whether the panel will seek a fifth member and whether the panel will begin work despite Eugster's court hearing.


Meanwhile the quiet guys from the Department of Justice won't say if their probing of West's hard drive has begun.


"We are looking into any possible violation of federal criminal law," Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Bartlett in Seattle said on Monday. "That's all I'm going to say."


Common sense would indicate it's likely the feds will look for violations of laws dealing with child porn, harassment, discrimination or other misdeeds under a broad heading of political corruption laws. But you didn't hear that from us.

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