Tuesday, June 28, 2016

City spokesman knew about Straub's pending ouster the day before denying knowledge to media

Posted By on Tue, Jun 28, 2016 at 4:13 PM

click to enlarge City Spokesman Brian Coddington at an ethics commission hearing in November - KXLY SCREENCAP
KXLY screencap
City Spokesman Brian Coddington at an ethics commission hearing in November

The day a Spokesman-Review reporter called city spokesman Brian Coddington, pressing him on what was happening with then-police Chief Frank Straub, Coddington knew very well that the chief's job was in danger — though he denied knowing anything to the S-R. The day before, he'd in fact written a draft of the press release announcing the police's resignation. 

But back then, Coddington was, to say the least, not forthcoming with what he knew. 

Records, obtained by the Inlander this month from an April 19 record request lay it out: 
On Sept. 21 Coddington sent a series of emails between 2 pm and 3 pm, corresponding with then-Assistant City Attorney Erin Jacobson under the subject "For Review."

It contained a document titled "2015-9-23 - DRAFT - SPD changes.docx." Coddington confirms it was an early draft of the press release announcing Straub's resignation.

He continues to maintain, however, that under his interpretations of the questions, he was honest with the newspaper.

Most of the correspondence between Jacobson — who handled legal issues concerning labor 
— and Coddington are blacked out, due to attorney-client privilege. Neither the Inlander, nor the independent investigator hired to investigate the city's handling of the Straub situation, will be able to see precisely what Jacobson and Coddington discussed.

These old emails are still relevant for two reasons. First, Coddington's statements to the reporter became the central focus of an ethics complaint filed last year by Mayor David Condon's election opponent, Shar Lichty. 

Back then, without knowing how involved Coddington had been in Straub's pending resignation, the ethics commission dismissed Lichty's claims as groundless. Second, tomorrow the ethics commission will assess complaints against the mayor for statements he made on the same day. Once again, the fine-grain details of how much a city official knew, and the precise wording of the reporter's questions, has become crucial pieces for the ethics commission. 

Just a few hours before Straub's resignation was announced on Sept. 21, Coddington had denied any knowledge that Straub's job was in danger to the Spokesman-Review reporter, according to a Spokesman-Review story
On the day of Straub’s dismissal, Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman, denied any knowledge of Straub’s imminent departure. Coddington was contacted around 1 p.m. and asked to confirm that Straub had lost his job.

I have not heard that,” he said. “I don’t believe that’s accurate.”

Asked if Straub was in danger of losing his job, Coddington again demurred with the same language.

I have not heard that,” he said. “I don’t believe that’s accurate.”
If we go by the Spokesman's account, it's now very clear that the second statement was false: Coddington knew that it was, in fact, accurate to say that Straub was in danger of losing his job. He had already drafted the press release. 

The Spokesman wrote that Coddington defended his words a few days later. "I have to deal with the information I was given," he said. 

This became the central point of Lichty's Oct. 12 ethics complaint (and at least one negative campaign ad). She quoted the exchange with the Spokesman, saying,  "despite these assertions, it is clear that a press release was drafted (which Straub attempted to stop from release) early on September 22nd."

"Mr. Coddington affirmatively stated to the media that he had no knowledge of Straub’s imminent departure, even though he knew this to be false," she added. While she also raised questions related to other statements, including Coddington's assertion that the decision to oust Straub was made only seconds before the release was sent out, most of her argument focused on Coddington's "I don't believe that's accurate" comments. 

Coddington's response was fiery. He asked the commission to consider the complaint, "frivolous, groundless and brought for the purposes of harassment, in this case, political benefit."

Coddington roasts Lichty for not having any evidence besides what Straub's attorney and the Spokesman reported.  

"Had Ms. Lichty taken the time to do any independent due diligence she would have learned that the allegations have no basis in fact," Coddington wrote. "She would have learned that they center around two questions asked by The Spokesman-Review reporter Nick Deshais and a timeline compiled by an attorney who was retained at least a day after the fact to file a multi-million dollar claim against the city."

In fact, Lichty had undersold her argument: It turns out that Coddington had drafted a press release regarding Straub's resignation the day before the 22nd. 

In Coddington's defense to the ethics complaint, however, he paraphrases the Spokesman's questions in a different manner than the newspaper did. The first question he recalls as, "Is the chief losing his job today?'' while the second he recalls as "So, the chief's job is not in danger?"

Contacted last week, Coddington argued that he was interpreting both questions as a single inquiry. He said he believed he was being asked if Straub had lost his job — or was in danger of losing his job — that day. He said, at that time, no deadline for Straub's removal had been set. 

While Coddington knew his job was so much in danger that he'd written a draft of a press release about it, he argues that he didn't know that Straub was in danger of losing his job on that very day.

But Coddington quickly learned he was wrong: Straub was very much in danger of losing his job that day.

"When Nick asked that question, there was an open discussion about how to move forward," Coddington said.  "Events that day continued to evolve. The situation changed."

A little more than a half-hour after the Spokesman-Review interview, Coddington shot off a message to Frank [Straub] with the draft of the press release: "The Mayor has directed me to send you this draft news release for review. This is the message we are willing to distribute," Coddington wrote. "I have received calls from the media." 

"Frank Straub, who has led the effort that has driven down crime and use of force incidents while restoring public confidence in officers, has decided to leave the Spokane Police Division," the draft outlined. "Spokane Mayor David Condon accepted Straub’s resignation today. Members of the police leadership team expressed concern in recent weeks about Straub’s management style. They submitted letters last week summarizing their concerns."

That day, Straub's removal was announced, though he wouldn't sign his letter of resignation until 14 days later.

Asked about the ethic complaints against Coddington and City Administrator Theresa Sanders during the debate last year, the mayor defended his staff.

"As the press in those 36 hours were asking questions of what was happening, the reality is, it was the information we knew at the time," Mayor David Condon said. "I believe in that [ethics complaint] process, and you will see that they did not intentionally mislead... At the time, that was the information they knew, which was literally changing hour by hour during that period."

Tomorrow, at 4 pm in city council chambers, the ethics commission will take on another thorny question stemming from the comments made to another reporter that same day:

When the Inlander asked Condon, "Were there any sexual harassment complaints lodged against Frank?" and the mayor said "no," was he being honest?

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...