Friday, June 17, 2016

Some reticent Straub investigation witnesses agreed to be interviewed after all

Posted By on Fri, Jun 17, 2016 at 4:47 PM

Back in March, independent investigator Kris Cappel, with the Seabold Group, had run into some serious hurdles in her quest to find out what happened with the complicated saga surrounding Police Chief Frank Straub's resignation. 
click to enlarge Some reticent Straub investigation witnesses agreed to be interviewed after all
Daniel Walters photo
Breean Beggs, a member of the joint Investigation Oversight Committee, says all current non-attorney city employees who Cappel wanted to interview have agreed to be interviewed.

She wasn't getting the records she needed. And a number of the witnesses she wanted to interview — nearly a third of her initial list — had declined to participate. 

An announcement that the interviews were voluntary ended up backfiring, with several witnesses pulling out because they felt it was unfair that some had been required to participate and other hadn't. 

Even a witness who had initially participated — City Clerk Terri Pfister — sent a letter to Cappel on March 1 indicating she "decided not to participate in further process related to the Seabold Group investigation."

But now, significant progress has been made on both fronts, according to a press release from the Investigation Oversight Committee. First, the mayor and several members of the city council met on Wednesday to discuss a way to handle the issue of documents remaining.  
"The small number of relevant documents withheld under privilege will undergo at a minimum a review by City Council members prior to a final decision on whether or not they will be released,” the release explains. 

Second, over the last few weeks, Cappel's managed to get all the non-attorney witnesses still working for the city on the record. (Straub and former police spokeswoman Monique Cotton have still not been interviewed.)

"No one has been pressured or forced," says City Councilman Breean Beggs, a member of the oversight committee. "As we could show more and more people had agreed to be interviewed, [reticent witnesses] felt more comfortable. It was a cascading positive."

Pfister agreed to another interview. Spokane Police Division Lt. Joe Walker, who had expressed concerns about Chief Straub to the city long before Straub's termination, initially avoiding being interviewed by the investigator. Walker expressed concerns about retaliation.

Walker said that the spate of recent resignations — which included Assistant Attorney Erin Jacobson and Nancy Isserlis — helped ease his concerns. But he also credits the city council's actions with helping to make the leap.

"A big part of it was the city council getting more involved in trying to push forward for the truth to come out," Walker says. "Once they changed some things to push city hall to get things moving... that changed my mind."

Capt. Brad Arleth's explanation for why he changed his mind was similar. 

"The bottom line, I suppose, is that I saw that the Council President Stuckart and Councilman [Breean] Beggs were definitely trying to do [what they needed] to make sure the investigation got completed," Arleth said. "Really after talking to a couple of people I trust in the agency and outside the agency... I just came to the conclusion that — even though [participating] wasn't my first preference — I didn’t have anything to hide. I'm a public employee. I had an obligation to participate, really for the benefit of the taxpayers. They didn't ask for the mess and they don’t deserve it." 

Jason Franklin, deputy director of business services, also agreed to participate. Beggs says that Angie Napolitano (Straub's former administrative assistant) and Erika Wade, a city accountant, agreed to speak with Cappel about some, but not necessarily all, topics. 

While none of the four city attorneys on Cappel's witness list agreed to be interviewed, Beggs explains that they have to deal with the much more complicated issue of attorney-client privilege. 

That, at least, is one knot that remains tangled.

The entire press release follows.
“The City Council will update the contract for an independent investigation with Seabold on June 20 and expects a final report by July 15th. In the last few weeks, Seabold has completed full interviews of Mayor Condon, Theresa Sanders, Terri Pfister, Heather Lowe, Brian Coddington, Brad Arleth and Joe Walker. These interviews were all voluntary. To date, Seabold has interviewed 49 witnesses, several on multiple occasions. The last remaining interview with a non-attorney current city employee is being scheduled for next week. Kris Cappel may schedule additional interviews to address information contained in documents that are currently in the process of being released to her.

At the request of the Investigation Oversight Committee, the City retained Special Counsel Kutak Rock LLP to conduct a review of documents that might be subject to attorney-client privilege. These documents are composed mostly of City emails. Today, non-privileged emails from senders whose last names begin with J-R were provided to Seabold, leaving approximately 2,500 emails from senders whose last names begin with S-Z. Those emails should be reviewed the following week with subsequent release of non-privileged records to Seabold.

Emails from the initial reviews that appear to be privileged will then be analyzed closely to see which of those records can be released. A deeper review of the first batch of documents that were initially identified as privileged led to the release of most of those documents that had initially been withheld, although some still contain redactions. Seabold continues to work with Kutak to reach agreement on the extent of those redactions. As a result, the Committee is confident that after final review only a small portion of records will be withheld as privileged and a detailed index explaining why will be prepared and released. The City Council and the Mayor will then have the opportunity to directly review those remaining records and determine how best to proceed. The Mayor and some Council Members recently held one meeting and will hold an additional meeting to discuss how best to proceed in making a final decision on how to address the remaining privileged documents in connection with the investigation.

In summary, the Seabold Report should be available to the public in the second half of July. Kris Cappel will have had the opportunity to interview every current city employee other than the city attorneys who reasonably believe that they can’t be interviewed due to privilege issues, and will have had access to nearly every document identified as relevant to the investigation. The small number of relevant documents withheld under privilege will undergo at a minimum a review by City Council members prior to a final decision on whether or not they will be released.”

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Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters was a staff reporter for the Inlander from 2009 to 2023. He reported on a wide swath of topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.His work investigated deep flaws in the Washington...