Abra Belke thought she had a decent shot at becoming the Spokane City Council's new policy adviser. She had the position's required law degree, and she'd spent three years as the special counsel for the Montana State Legislature. She worked five years as a policy staffer in Congress. She'd even briefly served as Mayor Nadine Woodward's campaign manager in 2019, before resigning after she was asked "to act contrary to (her) values."
But this time, she didn't even get an interview. And when she learned in January who had gotten the job, she was both baffled and insulted.
"I was like, you have to be kidding me," Belke says.
Sure, Chris Wright's resume was impressive too. He had been a state government ombudsman and a legislative analyst. He'd spent nearly a decade as in-house counsel for Metropolitan Mortgage and nine years on the Spokane Park Board. But Wright also came with two messy asterisks.
First: He's married to City Council member Karen Stratton, forcing the council to leap through a variety of hoops to try to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest.
And second: He's been disbarred as an attorney.
In 2020, the Washington State Bar Association accused him of years of misconduct. He resigned instead of defending himself, stipulating to the state Supreme Court that he would leave the law entirely.
Combine them both and, for Belke, the conclusion is obvious.
"If this person was not the spouse of another City Council person who they trust, I don't think they would have gotten the benefit of the doubt," Belke says.
'WEIRD OR SKETCHY'
If there's one council member who hasn't been afraid to call out conflicts of interest, it's Stratton. In 2016, she was the sole vote against hiring Chris Cavanaugh as human resources director, because Cavanaugh's brother-in-law was the head of the city's biggest union.
Stratton often abstained from casting votes about parks department business when her husband was on the park board. But now that Wright has a much more direct relationship with the city council, the situation is messier.
Wright isn't worried.
"We have overlapped with different employers in different places over the years," Wright says. "We've always managed to navigate that fine."
Stratton now carries around a binder with conflict of interest policies and legal guidelines about what she can and can't do.
"We know: We don't talk about it at home," Stratton says of council business. "It's just something that we stay away from."
The policy adviser position was created in 2015 to conduct legal analysis and research policies independent from the mayor's office. Yet the city's nepotism rules won't let Stratton directly ask her husband to do any of that work. She has to ask another council member to ask Wright to help her research a policy.
Former policy adviser, Brian McClatchey, says he wouldn't even show up for meetings that discussed Commerce Department funding when his wife — Lisa Brown, who announced her campaign for Spokane mayor last week — was director of that state agency.
Stratton knows there's very little room for error.
"There are lots of people watching," Stratton says. "Some for all the right reasons, and some are just waiting to see a mistake being made."
Some of the criticism has been predictable: The conservative Spokane Good Government Alliance decried the hire as "nepotism at its finest." Brian Coddington, Woodward's spokesman, says the mayor is concerned about "how the community might view and receive" Wright's hiring.
Even former City Council President Ben Stuckart, who helped create the policy adviser position, says the hire could appear a "little weird or sketchy."
"Someone would really have to explain to me how there's not a conflict of interest," Stuckart says. "I love Karen to death, but I have to say that."
After Wright heard about the job opportunity last year, he says he spoke to City Council President Breean Beggs, stressing that he didn't "want to apply if it's going to be a difficult process because of Karen."
"I was told, 'Go ahead, it's not a big deal,'" Wright says.
Beggs says the council isn't legally allowed to not hire someone because of their spouse.
"My understanding is that it would have been incredibly illegal if we had said, 'This doesn't look good, it's troublesome,'" Beggs says.
In fact, Council member Jonathan Bingle says he was told by the city's lawyers that he wasn't even legally allowed to ask questions about Wright's marriage to Stratton.
"Everything about this has been so frustrating," says Bingle, who has found himself avoiding critical questions or comments because of his relationship with Stratton. "It feels like a favor was done for Karen."
But Beggs says that the council unanimously agreed that Wright was best for the position.
"He really was the top of the list," Beggs says.
But to reach that conclusion the council either had to grapple with the Wright's checkered past or overlook it.
'WOULDN'T LET HIM WALK MY DOG'
Contractor Jason Sleater says he used to think of Wright as more than just his lawyer. He thought of him as a friend, even a mentor. Not anymore.
"I don't think he should be in a position of trust in any capacity," Sleater says. "I wouldn't even let him walk my dog."
In 2016, Sleater hired Wright to represent him in an ongoing construction dispute. When 2017 arrived, Wright stopped communicating. Without telling Sleater, he stopped showing up to court hearings.
"He just literally vanished," Sleater says. "I never even got a phone call. I went to his office. I tried to track him down at [his] home."
Since his lawyer was a no-show at court hearings, Sleater's lawsuit was getting torn up in court. Sleater not only lost his case by default, he was left defenseless from the counterclaims. He ended up on the hook for nearly $400,000, a lien on his house and with his reputation in tatters.
"It was just shocking that he would do that to me and my family," Sleater says. "It was just crazy."
But at the time, Wright says he was "sliding more and more into a state of depression." Two of his sisters were diagnosed with cancer within a single week, Stratton says.
Sleater sued Wright for malpractice, and Wright didn't bother to defend himself. Even before Sleater was awarded nearly $2.6 million, Wright and Stratton had filed for bankruptcy.
"It was a dark hole, it was a deep hole," Wright says. "I dug it myself."
Both Wright and Stratton argue Sleater isn't trustworthy, noting that Sleater was sanctioned for submitting a fraudulent document during one of Wright's bankruptcy hearings. (Sleater claims he was duped by a third party.)
Regardless, Wright stopped communicating with Fidelity National Title Insurance Company in 2015, refusing to return phone calls and emails from his client asking him to fix mistakes, hire experts or perform discovery. They sued Wright for malpractice.
In October 2017, another of Wright's clients went to the courthouse, where he learned that his business was held in contempt and had been charged $200 a day for the previous 38 days because of Wright's failure to produce documents.
The Washington State Bar Association laid out a pattern of behavior involving at least five cases across three years.
"It's something a 14-year-old would do, to just bury their head in the sand and not just take care of it," says Kevin Holt, Sleater's current attorney. "It would have taken one day out of his life to call his client and say, 'I'm having an emotional breakdown, sorry.'"
Yet, during this whole time, Wright kept showing up for lengthy park board meetings and helping out with his and Stratton's cannabis farm.
"The pressures of litigation overwhelmed me, and I decided, 'I just can't,'" Wright says. "I'm going to do something else today."
So in 2020, when the bar association brought the allegations against him, Wright didn't put up a fight. Instead, he resigned, promising to never again be a lawyer and agreeing to be "subject to all restrictions that apply to a disbarred lawyer."
Both Stratton and Wright claimed that he wasn't actually disbarred. But federal court records show that Eastern Washington's U.S. District Court officially disbarred him a month after his resignation.
To Belke, a disbarment — the punishment every lawyer fears — was a huge deal.
"It's very difficult to get disbarred," Belke says. "Now you're advising some of the most important elected officials in the county in Eastern Washington on what makes good government?"
Two council members told the Inlander the reason Belke didn't get an interview for the adviser position was because her preferred start date was too late. But Belke says she was clear that, if necessary, she could start as soon as mid-February, just weeks after Wright ultimately started.
By contrast, the City Council didn't seem particularly bothered by Wright's past when it came to hiring this new role.
"No one really brought that up as a major concern," Wright says.
Beggs says the issue was discussed in meetings. But none of the council members say they'd read the state bar's allegations against Wright. Council member Michael Cathcart was the only one who says he asked Wright about it.
"I think he is very contrite. He is very interested in making up for his past," Cathcart says. "That's the sense I got."
And while Cathcart voted against Wright's appointment, he says he did it only because he opposes the existence of the position, which earns the $107,000 annually.
Besides Wright and Belke, the other finalist was Jose Trejo, a well-known and longtime tenants' rights attorney. But Cathcart felt Wright was by far the most impressive candidate. Already, Cathcart's been impressed by Wright's transparency.
Beggs, a lawyer himself, didn't think the misconduct was relevant to Wright's new role. He notes Wright will have a lot more oversight than he had before.
Wright makes the same point.
"I don't think you can do that very long with seven bosses," Wright says, before correcting himself. "Karen's place in that equation means that's six, really."
On Monday night, Wright sat on the dais just five chairs away from his wife. After the meeting, Stratton is frustrated, even angry, that she and her husband have to continue to answer for his past actions, and are being dragged back to relive their painful past, where they lost everything. She suggests that if things get worse, they could both resign and leave Spokane entirely.
Days earlier, Stratton had struck a more hopeful note. Considering his ability to survive the bankruptcy, the lawsuits, the misconduct hearings — Stratton says she admires her spouse's tenacity.
"I would have never shown my face again in public, because that's the hardest thing in the world to do," Stratton says. "There's gotta be some redemption in the world, right?" ♦