When Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward and her city administrator held a press conference on Friday to announce an outside investigation into city affairs, it was sold as a bold act of transparency.
"The Woodward administration will conduct the people's business in an accountable and transparent manner," City Administrator Wes Crago declared.
One problem: Officials weren't willing to detail what they were being transparent about. This much officials were willing to say: The director of Community Housing and Human Services recently flagged concerns about the department's previous work with community partners — concerns that were serious enough that the Mayor's Office alerted the State Auditor's Office and plans to hire a third-party investigator to dig into it.
The review, Crago says, will be tasked with figuring out whether the city's policies at the CHHS department were followed when awarding resources and whether any decisions lacked financial accountability.
"Finally, was there any inappropriate pressure — either real or perceived — placed on staff in making decisions?" Crago said.
Crago said that current staff members didn't appear to be involved. But when pressed by the Inlander, Crago denied knowing which previous staff members may have been involved, who potential wrongdoers were or what the specific allegations were. He denied he'd even asked.
"I don't think we got into the specifics," Crago said.
Except, that wasn't true.
The biggest scandal of the previous administration involved, in part, a press conference denial: Mayor David Condon flatly denied there'd been any sexual harassment complaints lodged against his former police chief. When public records proved that Condon indeed knew about a sexual harassment allegation against the chief, and even met with the accuser's lawyer, it sparked an ethics investigation into the mayor. Condon spent months lawyerly parsing definitions to claim what he said was technically true.
But Crago has taken a different route.
Just a few hours after the press conference, he called the Inlander directly to correct the record and to "personally apologize" for some of his answers.
"My job is to be completely honest and not fumble the ball when I get it," Crago says. "And I fumbled today. I'll be upfront about it."
It was a "mistake," Crago says, to deny that the city had specific knowledge of allegations before it launched the investigation.
"I guess I wasn't prepared for that question," he says. "Those were my words. I said that. It's my responsibility. Being very frank, that was my first real press conference."
In reality, Crago says, the Woodward administration does know more about the allegations, but it doesn't want to risk biasing or limiting the third-party investigation by publicly discussing them.
The goal, he says, is to give the investigator free rein to pursue "whatever they need to pursue to produce a report that we all can look at and say, 'Yeah, that's what happened, and this is why it happened. Here's how we fix it.'"
But because the city still hasn't publicly clarified what exactly it wants to review, speculation has run rampant. The moment Friday's press conference was over, former City Councilman Mike Fagan handed the Inlander a package of documents from the Guardians Foundation, the nonprofit where his son worked and which ran several warming shelters last winter.
"It names names in there," Fagan says.
SEX, LIES AND POLICE RECORDS
About a month before Woodward and Crago held their press conference, Mike Shaw, director of the Guardians Foundation, sent a letter to Spokane's city prosecutor.
"I am writing to report a crime that has been committed against the city of Spokane and civil servants thereof," Shaw began.
He argued that Julie Garcia, co-founder of Jewels Helping Hands, a different nonprofit that was picked to run a warming shelter this winter, was guilty of such a serious lie that it constituted a violation of state law.
Shaw says he spoke with Woodward directly about the matter.
"I asked her when she was going to be acting on this," Shaw says. "She said she'd get to the bottom of it."
Initially, Shaw says his foundation was going to be running a warming center this winter, along with Jewels.
But that changed in late September. On Sept. 22, Garcia wrote an email to Tija Danzig, with the city's Community Housing and Human Services department, and relayed in writing accusations she'd been making for months about Guardians Foundation's behavior at the Salem Lutheran warming center.
"I saw with my own eyes employees engaging in sexual behavior with houseless women behind Salem Lutheran Church," Garcia wrote. "I saw employees come to the warming center on their days off to engage in sexual behavior with our houseless women."
Garcia says she wrote the email at the city's request. She wasn't the only one formally voicing concerns. The city subsequently pulled Guardians' contract and the police started investigating into whether there'd been public sex — or even a sexual assault — behind the Salem Lutheran warming center.
By November, however, the reputation of Jewels was also under attack: Jewels co-founder Jason Green had a 2015 conviction for embezzlement, and back in 2013 Garcia had been accused of attempting to steal from a 96-year-old man while she served as his caregiver. The prosecutor had dropped the case against Garcia due to her medical issues.
Still, the city stuck with Jewels as the warming center operator, despite an offer from Truth Ministries to take over the contract. Months passed with little controversy.
But then, about a month ago, Shaw got the records of the police investigation: While accompanying a homeless woman to a police interview in November, Garcia had shared a slew of secondhand allegations against the Guardians, but repeatedly denied that she'd directly witnessed "any sexual activity or sexual assaults."
Instead of sharing a first-hand account of sex behind Salem Lutheran, Garcia said "she saw a woman go out the back door with an employee of the shelter but did not see what happened to the woman once she left the building," police records state.
The investigation closed with no proof of sexual wrongdoing by Guardians employees.
To Shaw, the records were proof that Garcia had made a false material statement to a public servant — a gross misdemeanor — in order to "alter city decisions and policies regarding homeless reporting.
"Julie Garcia manipulated the entire system," Shaw says. He told Woodward he was planning on going public, but he says Woodward asked him to hold off until after her press conference to avoid muddying the waters.
"Nadine knows that we got screwed," Shaw says.
In a phone interview with the Inlander, however, Garcia stands by the incendiary claim that she refused to share with the police: "I actually did see one instance of [a Guardians employee] having sex standing behind Salem Lutheran," Garcia says. She doesn't recall the date, however, and won't give the Inlander the name of the Guardians employee nor the other volunteer who she claims was with her when she witnessed it.
"I don't believe it's my business to be naming people," Garcia says. "I'm not an investigator. I help homeless people. That's it."
She says that her denials she'd ever witnessed any sexual activity at the warming center weren't intended to be comprehensive and that she intentionally refused to tell the police about the consensual sex she saw behind Salem Lutheran incident in order to protect the woman involved.
"I'm not going to have those women drug through mud," Garcia says.
Garcia says she wasn't trying to hurt the Guardians or influence how warming center contracts were awarded. Instead, she wanted the city to investigate the issues she'd raised about the Guardians long ago.
Now, as the city embarks on a third-party investigation into whether pressure had been placed on the city's Community Housing and Human Services process, staffers at the Guardians and Jewels Helping Hands can only speculate about whether it involves their own controversies.
Crago, the city administrator, stressed to the Inlander that "at the moment, there is no link between our third-party review and the Spokane Police investigation of the Guardians."
They're two parallel stories, he suggests, not the same one. But even that, eventually, could change.
"However," Crago hedges, "it's possible those might intersect." ♦