Working the Dark Side

The Breann Beggs/Rocky Treppiedi conflict is about much more than free speech.

Part of what shouldn’t get lost in the recent dust-up between former CFJ lawyer Breean Beggs and Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi is what it reveals about the nature of the City Attorney’s office and the peculiarly aggressive role that Treppiedi continues to be allowed to play on the city’s behalf.

In case you missed it, Beggs drew Treppiedi’s ire last spring by having the temerity to speak to members of the Spokane City Council about revising the city’s Police Ombudsman ordinance. This resulted in a June 23, 2010 letter to Beggs from the Assistant City Attorney. It’s a letter that has to be read (preferably aloud) in its entirety to appreciate the depth of Treppiedi’s arrogance. Here’s a small sample:

“I am aware that [City Attorney, and Treppiedi's boss] Howard Delaney recently invited you to attend a discussion with him and a few Council Members. That was a one-time only invitation; please do not attempt any further contact with them.”

When the Spokesman-Review’s fine City Hall reporter Jonathan Brunt got to the story in late September, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had entered the fray on Beggs’s behalf, accusing Treppiedi and the City Attorney’s office of trampling upon Beggs’s First Amendment rights.

I don’t mean to downplay the First Amendment issue because, like all the other controversies Treppiedi periodically fuels or creates, you can pull it apart into an interesting ‘he-said, he-said’ news story. Still, it’s the broader sweep of this long-running saga that people who care about the tenor and tactics of city government (not to mention the use of resources) should reflect upon. The most salient fact is that Rocky Treppiedi is still on the city’s payroll and being given the reins to do what Rocky Treppiedi is so well-known for doing. It’s also noteworthy that this happens on Mayor Mary Verner’s watch and with her blessing. This is the same Mary Verner who currently promotes herself as “The Peoples’ Mayor” and who campaigned against Dennis Hession in 2007 by arguing that she was the more progressive of the two candidates.

In this latest instance, the gist of Treppiedi’s beef is that because Beggs had been representing the family and estate of Otto Zehm in a civil suit against the city, he should not have been able to talk to members of the Spokane City Council about police accountability “outside the presence of legal counsel for the City of Spokane.”

“Your direct advice to the Council Members,” Treppiedi explained, “has been contrary to the advice provided by this office. Your actions with the Council Members have been taken on behalf of your clients, the plaintiff’s, in this matter.”

It’s quite true that Beggs’s advice was “contrary” to the advice the council was getting from the City Attorney’s office. (And thank goodness for that.) The second assertion was dealt with pretty squarely in Beggs’s immediate reply. Beggs not only disputed the assertion that he was representing the Zehm family in his conversations with City Council members, but insisted he had every right to share his views on police accountability legislation with city council members, at their request.

Let’s walk this back a bit.

The Zehm case began, of course, in March 2006 when the 36-year-old unarmed janitor was severely beaten and tasered by Spokane police. He died of his injuries two days later. Beggs and the Center still represent the Zehm estate and it is true (as Treppiedi alludes to in his letter) that, in trying to resolve the civil suit brought by the Zehm family/estate against the City of Spokane, part of what we and the Zehm family wanted to talk about were possible police practice and accountability reforms the city might agree to as part of settling the case.

Those who follow the Center’s work know this is not at all unusual. With the client’s consent and guidance, we often try to leverage a public policy reform as part of a settlement with a government entity because if we can reach an out of court agreement, it means less burden for taxpayers and, one hopes, better government. In this instance, the Zehm family felt as strongly as we did that a pre-trial settlement that could incorporate police accountability reforms would help avoid a repeat of tragedies like Otto’s death.

Suffice to say, the city felt differently. More importantly, it acted differently. Under Mayor Verner’s direction, the city proceeded to strike a closed-door agreement with the city’s police unions that, with all the subtlety of a nightstick to the mouth, removed all the teeth from the police ombudsman proposal that the League of Women Voters, the Center for Justice, and other community groups had been championing for years. Here, it’s also noteworthy that the agreement with the police unions erased key provisions for the office’s independence that were included in recommendations the city warmly received in 2007 from consultant Sam Pailca. What emerged from the closed door negotiation with the unions was a farce. It was a take-it-or-leave-it ordinance that the 2008 city council reluctantly decided to take as a “start” toward ultimately getting a real ombudsman.

It was entirely understandable that the police unions would oppose the changes to the 2008 ordinance that were ultimately adopted by the council earlier this year. But, as I noted in a June 1 commentary the real front of opposition to giving the citizens of Spokane a credibly independent ombudsman was the City Attorney’s office. This explains the 6/23  knuckle sandwich from Treppiedi to Beggs. At least part of what’s being jealously guarded here is the power the City Attorney’s office has to shape the terms, and often the outcomes, of public policy decisions–decisions that we actually elect mayors and council members to make.

The influence the office enjoys took shape under the weak mayor form of government (which ended in 2001.) When former Mayor Sheri Barnard ran in 1997 to try to regain the office she lost in 1993, she did so by promising to work to replace then-City Attorney Jim Sloane. Sloane, she said, was the person who really ran the city. Barnard’s complaint would actually become even more visible in the unearthing of the River Park Square scandal, where council members like Cherie Rodgers found that Sloane’s office was extremely creative in helping the city enmesh itself in the corrupt public-private partnership, but no help at all to the rebelious 2000 council when it was trying to navigate out of the crisis.

The power Jim Sloane accrued under the weak mayor system made him an epic figure in City Hall. But no one embodies the aggressive attitude of city legal more than Rocky Treppiedi.

Treppiedi began working for the city in the 1980s and, though he spent a few years in private practice, he was brought back into City Hall in 2003 and quickly resumed the work he is best known for–defending police officers and the interests of Spokane’s police department. A March 2007 profile of Treppiedi by Bill Morlin and Karen Dorn Steele, then the Spokesman-Review’s two senior investigative reporters, found that Treppiedi has vigorous defenders and detractors in local government.

There is nothing in the Spokane Municipal Code that instructs the city’s lawyers to ignore evidence of police misconduct and, instead, inflict legal pain on those who allege police abuse. But, figuratively at least, this is the face of the City of Spokane that you and your family will see if, and when, this happens to you, or your son, or your daughter, or your parents. With your bleeding head on the pavement, you won’t be looking up at the photogenic mayor’s winsome smile and listening to her uplifting prose. You’ll be looking up at Rocky Treppiedi, and he won’t be handing you a Lilac Festival button.

Among Treppiedi’s supporters was former Spokane City Attorney Mike Connelly who told the journalists: “Rocky is an excellent attorney with a great record defending the Police Department.” Treppiedi’s detractors included a former county deputy prosecutor, Richard Wall, who told the reporters that Treppiedi’s single-minded defense of police officers “generates an atmosphere that encourages police misconduct.”

Treppiedi’s tactics on behalf of Spokane police officers involved in the Otto Zehm case drew sharp protests last year from the U.S. Justice Department as federal prosecutors were investigating police misconduct in the case. Among DOJ’s complaints was that Treppiedi violated a gag order issued by Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, the purpose of which was to safeguard the confidentiality and integrity of the Justice Department’s investigation. Treppiedi bristled at the charge and replied that he was told by Assistant Chief of Police Jim Nicks that the gag order didn’t apply to him.

Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi

If Treppiedi seems unfazed by the Justice Department, he was equally unfazed in 1994 when, without bothering to notify City Attorney Sloane, he accompanied Spokane police on a pre-dawn surprise search. The target? CBS News. The police seized video shot for a CBS story on a feud inside a Spokane Gypsy family. The city wound up apologizing to the outraged network for seizing the videotapes. As for the family that was the target of Treppiedi’s intense interest, the Marks family sued the city, alleging their civil rights were violated when Spokane police entered their homes in 1986 and seized jewelry and cash without a warrant. A Spokane judge agreed and the family eventually collected a $1.43 million settlement from the city.

There are many other Treppiedi controversies, including his penchant for bringing malicious prosecution and defamation claims against people who allege brutality or other misconduct on the part of Spokane cops. Of course, the purpose of the malicious prosecution and defamation counter-suits is to discourage people from suing Spokane and its police officers.

There is nothing in the Spokane Municipal Code that instructs the city’s lawyers to ignore evidence of police misconduct and, instead, inflict legal pain on those who allege police abuse. But, figuratively at least, this is the face of the City of Spokane that you and your family will see if, and when, this happens to you, or your son, or your daughter, or your parents. With your bleeding head on the pavement, you won’t be looking up at the photogenic mayor’s winsome smile and listening to her uplifting prose. You’ll be looking up at Rocky Treppiedi, and he won’t be handing you a Lilac Festival button.

The latest Treppiedi controversy arose when the Assistant City Attorney fired off his June 23rd letter to Beggs, accusing him of ethical violations and threatening him with a bar complaint.

As Beggs tartly pointed out in his response, his visit with the council members and three city lawyers had nothing to do with the Zehm case. Rather, it had to do with the council’s desire to re-visit the 2008 ordinance and look at options on how the council could improve upon it. And what the council members were being told by city legal is that there were no options. Councilman Bob Apple publicly accused the office of purposely misleading the council, and councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin told the Spokesman-Review in late May that she and other council members were “tired of them telling us that we can’t do it.” By “it,” McLaughlin was referring to the council’s desire to at least amend the 2008 ordinance to provide the Ombudsman office some measure of independence from the police department.

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner

In retrospect, it really shouldn’t have been necessary to invite Beggs over to City Hall. As we reported a year ago, the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) issued a key decision last fall that clearly supported what Beggs and other CFJ attorneys had been telling the city all along–which is that the Ombudsman office could have independent investigative powers so long as the office was not directly involved in the police department’s disciplinary process. The house call Beggs made to City Hall to offer legal hand-holding was only necessary because of the frustration that council members were experiencing as a result of the city’s lawyers’ intransigence. He wasn’t summoned to talk about the Zehm case. Nor is there any evidence that he did.

When Verner issued a conciliatory signing statement to the Ombudsman reforms on June 29th (after the council had unanimously adopted an ordinance incorporating changes she and her lawyers had heretofore resisted) it seemed like a good opportunity to turn the page. But the mayor’s track record on police accountability is hard to ignore. She has consistently downplayed it as a priority and used disingenuous public relations gimmicks to try to dispel deep and legitimate public outrage. While news of Treppiedi’s letter to Beggs left at least some council members seething,  Blunt reported that Verner told the S-R in August that she supported Treppiedi.

“There wasn’t any concern about (Beggs) exercising his right to petition his elected official (sic),” Blunt quoted Verner. “It was that he had simultaneous roles going and there was a blurring of which role he was engaged in at any given time.”

Because some nice people, including many of my close friends, are fond of the mayor and her progressive environmental policies, they will give her the benefit of this doubt. I don’t.

Whether she knew about Treppiedi’s letter in advance or not, the point is she condoned it and, then, with Verneresque wordplay, tried to suggest that there was legitimate confusion over why Beggs was in the building. Really? Enough to threaten him with a bar complaint?

What I read in Brunt’s article is pretty much what you read on the sports page after a pitcher has purposely launched a fast ball at hot-hitting batter’s head. Everybody on the field knows what that’s all about, even as the pitcher’s manager later talks to the press with a bemused smile about the need to work the inside of the plate, and how there’s a fine line between a ball and a strike.

The Mayor is up for re-election next year and part of this “People’s Mayor” campaign will likely be some word wash about how she’s changed the culture at City Hall since 2008. That may be true in some ways, on some issues. But it’s not true on this one.

–Tim Connor

Editor’s note: The author’s commentary reflect his views, and not necessarily those of the Center for Justice.