In the war of words between the City and the Justice Department, an Assistant U.S. Attorney alleges Mayor Verner misled the press and the public in a September 9th media release.
UPDATE, October 1st: The City is now acknowledging that there was no meeting with the Justice Department as it had previously reported.
In a brief filed Tuesday with a federal court preparing to conduct the criminal trial of police officer Karl F. Thompson, Jr., in the Otto Zehm case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Durkin blasts Spokane Mayor Mary Verner for a document circulated to reporters at a September 9th press event at City Hall.
Durkin’s unsparing comments are part the government’s response to a September 15th motion by Carl Oreskovich, the attorney representing Thompson, seeking a change of venue in Thompson’s upcoming trial on criminal charges. Thompson is charged with using excessive force and lying to investigators after he was involved in the fatal March 2006 arrest of Otto Zehm, a 36 year-old janitor. He is scheduled to go to trial on October 11th.
The stiff criticism of Spokane’s Mayor is directed at her conduct on September 9th when she summoned local reporters to City Hall to make a press statement on the Zehm case. After announcing that she and members of the Spokane City Council intended to conduct a thorough investigation of the City’s handling of the Zehm case—once all litigation in the case ceased—she refused all questions.
Instead, as Durkin notes in his brief, “Mayor Verner released a document purportedly containing accurate statements about the criminal and civil cases in the form of answers to Frequently Asked Questions. (FAQs). However, several of the publicly disseminated “FAQ” statements are patently false and inaccurate, including representations by city attorneys that they ‘met with’ DOJ officials after receiving a June 15, 2009, e-mail outlining DOJ concerns, inter alia, with conflicts of interest within the city attorney’s offices and interferences with the DOJ’s ongoing investigation.”
In Durkin’s brief he flatly denies that the meeting described in the September 9th “FAQs” ever took place.
The news of the attempted meeting surfaced in a high profile Spokesman-Review story that ran on the front of its local section on August 28th. The gist of the story by S-R City Hall reporter Jonathan Brunt was that DOJ’s “urgent” efforts in 2009 to meet with Mayor Verner, Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, and Council President Joe Shogan were thwarted, apparently because neither City Attorney Howard Delaney, or anyone else in the City Attorney’s office, bothered to inform the three public officials of the DOJ request. In the story, Verner acknowledged to Brunt that she hadn’t seen the emails from DOJ requesting the meeting “and that’s the extent of which I’m going to say about it.” Brunt also reported that Delaney refused to answer questions about it.
But the question re-emerged in the September 9th “FAQ” sheet, under the question: “Why didn’t City elected officials meet with the U.S. Attorney in 2009?”
The answer acknowledged the request for the meeting “to discuss potential conflict of interest questions,” and then reported: “City Attorney Howard Delaney and Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi did meet with the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a result of this request. They met with the U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington at the time, Jim McDevitt, along with Mr. Durkin and other representatives of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
According to Tuesday’s filing by Durkin, the meeting described in the FAQ handout just didn’t happen.
The same FAQ answer by the City succinctly sets aside the conflict issue this way: “The court found no issues of conflict or impropriety on the part of the City.”
Durkin answers that statement with this one: “(N)o court has yet considered, reviewed, and/or addressed any city attorney’s actions-conduct in this matter.”
The main purpose of Durkin’s brief, filed with Federal District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle, is to dispute contentions that Thompson may not be able to get a fair trial in Spokane. The Assistant U.S. Attorney also sharply criticizes Oreskovich, Spokane City Attorney Howard Delaney, and Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi for their public statements about the Zehm case, arguing that they have made repeated efforts through the news media to influence public opinion in defense of Thompson and other Spokane police officers.
“(T)o the extent that defendant asserts that he has been prejudiced,” Durkin argued in yesterday’s filing, “the defense’s active participation and solicitation of media reports and accounts, both directly and indirectly through others, estops defendants from legitimately seeking a change of venue since he and his attorneys have played a significant role in fueling the ongoing media coverage of this case.”
The Center for Justice represents Ann Zehm and the estate of Otto Zehm in a pending federal civil suit against Thompson and the City. The case is currently on hold pending the conclusion of Thompson’s criminal trial.
Update October 1, 2011: The Spokesman-Review is reporting in today’s edition that the City acknowledges that Durkin is correct, and that the meeting cited in the September 9th handout never occurred.