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Mayor Priest under investigation for taking campaign signs | VIDEO

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The 'sign jail' at the police department's auxiliary building on South 333rd Street, across from City Hall.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror

Federal Way Mayor Skip Priest is under investigation for possible criminal theft after he was caught removing city-confiscated campaign signs late at night.

The incident occurred just before 10 p.m. Sept. 24. A Federal Way police officer had stopped by the auxiliary building on South 333rd Street, across from City Hall, when he observed Priest removing campaign signs from the so-called "sign jail" at the side of the building.

The sign jail is where the city stores confiscated campaign signs that are illegally placed in the city. Sign owners must pay a fine to get the signs back.

The officer advised his supervisor because it appeared the signs were being stolen. The officer was suspicious because the activity was taking place at night.

In a letter dated Sept. 30, Chief Brian Wilson asked the Washington State Patrol to investigate the incident and "determine if prosecutorial and/or other review are warranted."

Priest told The Mirror he received an invoice for the campaign signs Sept. 24 and wrote a check for $120 that same day. The city issued Priest a receipt at 11:06 a.m. Sept. 25. Priest provided copies of the receipt and check, but did not have a copy of the invoice.

Priest, who is running for re-election, said he had previously asked city staff about the process for retrieving confiscated campaign signs. As for the receipt being issued the day after taking the signs, Priest said the city may have been waiting for his check to clear.

Wilson said a city employee gave a statement that Priest paid for the signs prior to retrieving. However, that employee's statement was withheld from release due to the investigation, according to a police spokeswoman.

"I paid for (the signs) before I took them," Priest told The Mirror on Tuesday, and said that he even waved at a police officer while retrieving his signs. "I honestly have no understanding of what this is about."

Priest said he didn't know who "leaked" the information to the media about this investigation.

"This is the silly political season," he said. "I don't know who leaked an investigation, which should never have happened, and suddenly becomes elevated, and the police quite rightfully look into it."

Except for portable signs, all private signs are prohibited in Federal Way rights-of-way, according to city code. A right-of-way is defined as the area of public property that contains roadways, planting strips, sidewalks, landscaping, streetlights and utility infrastructure.

It is the sign installer's responsibility to place signs in compliance with the city code. The non-compliant signs are confiscated by city staff.

According to the city's rules, confiscated signs are held at City Hall for a period of 14 days, then will be disposed. To retrieve a confiscated sign, a person must make an appointment with city staff. There is a fee of $5 per sign, which is paid at City Hall.

See the video

In the video below, surveillance footage shows Priest backing up to the sign jail's gate in his Volvo sedan. He opens the gate, enters the sign jail and looks around. He goes back to his car to retrieve a towel, then walks back into the sign jail, where he wipes off one sign at a time and loads them into his car. According to the footage, this activity lasted from about 9:41 p.m. to 10:06 p.m.

Read more

To read the letter to the state patrol, and see copies of Priest's check and receipt, click here. According to the letter, a Federal Way police commander was initially directed to conduct an investigation on the mayor at 10:35 a.m. Sept. 25. The mayor's receipt for the signs was dated 11:06 a.m. Sept. 25.

FYI: Another investigation

Priest was subject to another investigation in May. A formal complaint was filed May 9 by Councilmember Kelly Maloney after a conversation she had with Priest the day before.

The complaint describes a nearly 30-minute meeting in which the mayor was angry, pounding his fist on the desk and "lacing the 'F' word throughout his statements as he was yelling." The complaint alleged the mayor was trying to intimidate Maloney and claimed the mayor also cried.

To investigate the complaint, the city hired attorney Eileen M. Baratuci of Arbitration, Investigation and Mediation (AIM) Services based in Port Townsend.

The 10-page report summarizes the attorney's interviews with Priest, Maloney and people who may have witnessed the initial confrontation or the mayor's "direct mode," a term that Priest uses to describe a harsh style of communication.

The complaint became public when the city released it to the Federal Way Mirror in response to a public records request.

The investigator reported a concern that the complaint "was being used for political objectives."

According to the investigator: "Although I do not make any specific findings about who notified the press of Ms. Maloney's complaint, the fact that Ms. Maloney told Mayor Priest's political opponent (Deputy Mayor Jim Ferrell) about it raises the possibility that the complaint itself, regardless of the investigative findings, could be used to elicit as much damage politically, as possible, over a single conversation."

To read the investigator's report, click here.

 

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