Opinion

City sparks Nixon-era question over chiropractor | Roegner

“What did the president know and when did he know it?”

That Nixonian query has been the bane of politicians for over 40 years. It serves as a stark reminder to politicians who might forget: the cover up is always worse than the act, and stonewalling only invites more questions.

Did it happen in Federal Way? You be the judge.

A few months ago, the community and city council were embarrassed in the regional media when it was discovered, by The Mirror, that the city council had appointed a local chiropractor to an advisory board.

Just a few months earlier, the chiropractor had been arrested on a felony sex charge and was scheduled for trial. The arrest was front page news as the chiropractor was very visible and well known in the community. He treated Olympic-caliber athletes, and frequently ran large color ads in the newspaper.

The council quickly called an emergency meeting and rescinded the appointment on the grounds that the chiropractor had not been fully forthcoming in his application. Since his trial had not been held, he would be assumed innocent until proven guilty. But that legal nicety could have gotten lost in the media coverage, so the council was careful in how it took back its appointment.

The council both appoints and confirms candidates to boards and commissions. However, the application process is handled by the mayor’s staff. Some council members were inclined to blame them.

However, they backed off and took responsibility. The public and the media asked the question: how could seven members of the city council not recognize the name, and since some council members knew the chiropractor very well, how could they not connect the dots regarding his arrest?

It was a significant embarrassment to the city council, and that might have been the end of it.

But some in the community kept asking a different question. How could the three most knowledgeable, powerful and well connected public safety officials in city government — the mayor, police chief and city attorney — not recognize the name and move to intervene and keep the council from embarrassing themselves and the city?

I was at the council meeting where the appointment was made. I sat in stunned amazement and disbelief when the Mirror publisher and a reporter, who were also in attendance, confirmed the name. I immediately looked at the police chief and city attorney to see if they were going to interject. I expected a request for a recess from one of them so they could alert the council. No one moved. And there was no comment from the mayor, who was chairing the meeting.

Were seven city council members, the mayor, police chief and city attorney all fully aware of what was occurring — and approved it?

If so, it was going to be a major problem for everyone involved when the public found out. How could the three administrators just sit there?

As expected, the public wasn’t happy, and the city looked bad in the local and regional media. The questions were mainly directed at the council. A Seattle television station tried to interview Mayor Skip Priest, but was referred to Deputy Mayor Jim Ferrell, who took the lion’s share of the criticism on behalf of the council.

But other questions were just below the surface. Were the mayor, police chief and city attorney aware of the circumstances and possible implications, and decided to leave it alone and stay out of the council’s business? Or were they simply asleep and missed it? As unlikely as it seems, is it possible they didn’t recognize the name? They had the council agenda for several days prior to the meeting, as it was available to them in the council packet, and their schedules show briefings on the council agenda along with meetings with each other for the days leading up to the council meeting.

It was city staff who processed the paperwork, and they report to the attorney and the mayor. Most everyone in town knew the chiropractor’s name and the arrest circumstances.

But, some suggested a more sinister reason for silence. Did they let it happen because Deputy Mayor Jim Ferrell, who is also running for mayor, would be the one who would have to face the media and take the political heat? I emailed the police chief and asked, in my usual overly wordy fashion: What did he know and when did he know it? When did he realize that the candidate for appointment and the arrested chiropractor were the same person? I mis-typed the name, which the chief pointed out, and so I corrected it and sent a follow up. No answer. Over the next few weeks, I sent two more emails with name spelled correctly. I also sent the question in two emails to the mayor and three emails to the city attorney. No answer from either. I was surprised. Why would they keep silent? It was a very simple question.

I emailed the communications manager to seek his assistance. He fussed about me not going through him in the first place. I had purposely gone directly to the “big three,” as I wanted the comment to come directly from them and didn’t want any political spin on the answer.

When I started this little query about who knew what, I thought it a waste of time. I felt the people who were raising the question were just conspiracy thinkers, or maybe they had an issue with the three administrators. Or maybe they were Ferrell supporters. Frankly, I thought I’d send an email to the mayor, police chief and city attorney, and they would give me an answer and that would be the end of it.

In all likelihood, they just missed the chiropractor on the agenda and are too embarrassed to admit it.

But after a few more weeks of no answers, I began to wonder what the truth was. Why won’t they answer some simple questions? If they did just miss the connection, stonewalling only makes it look worse. Or is there something more to the story?

Fact-finding mission

I decided to press the issue and asked the communications manager to set up interviews with the three, and the staff who actually did the application process. And since the communications manager might know some information, I asked him the same questions.

After several days, the communications manager said the city was declining to schedule the meetings. They didn’t want to rehash old business. More stonewalling over a few questions that might take 15 minutes to answer?

So, “what did they know and when did they know it?” The answer should be simple, and yet none of the three would tell. What’s the big secret?

I submitted a public disclosure request to obtain emails and records that might shed some light on the issue, and started asking questions of others in city government.

I found out that the city attorney and the police chief had a phone conversation about the chiropractor around the time the council interviewed the him the evening he was appointed. While we don’t know what was actually said, the chiropractor’s application does include an inconsistency that could have raised a question. The attorney was at the pre-council meeting, but the chief apparently was not. So there was at least some suspicion then, if not before, between the two key law enforcement officials. The attorney may not have recognized the name, but did apparently see an issue.

But how could the police chief not put the story together for the city attorney when she raised the question? According to sources they talked about it, but chose not to do anything with it? We don’t know if or when they alerted the mayor. To not alert him immediately, given the controversial circumstances, would be a shocking breach of professional conduct and could get you fired, as they would have no way of knowing who would get blamed by the community, mayor Priest or Ferrell. Unless they didn’t tell him, because he already knew? Unlikely as it may seem for a mayor who seems to know everyone, is it possible that the mayor didn’t recognize the name on his own?

We don’t know the answers to these and several other questions because no one will talk. And there is no legal reason for them not to. The questions are about what three of the most important officials in city government knew and when they knew it. Not talking would make anyone suspicious.

But here’s my best guess. I don’t happen to believe those who suggest a conspiracy between the mayor, police chief and city attorney to willfully embarrass Ferrell because he is running against the mayor. I think the city attorney just missed the name and the implications until she noticed the inconsistency on the application. If that is true, her error was in not immediately asking the chiropractor a clarifying question or notifying the city council and holding the appointment aside until the question could be resolved.

But she did talk to the police chief and he likely recognized the name. We don’t know what he told her, but he probably said there was an issue with the chiropractor, although he may not have disclosed what it was. He certainly should have, since the information was not confidential. The city attorney may have compounded her error of not asserting herself, by then allowing the council to make the appointment. Some insiders say she may not have known the full story until the next day or later. If true, that raises other questions.

The police chief should have told her the full story when they talked by phone during the meeting. If he didn’t, that is a significant problem. If the chief didn’t know the full story, that is an even bigger problem. And if the two department heads knew some or all of the story, and it appears they did or should have, and didn’t alert the council or mayor that is the biggest problem of all.

Lastly, the mayor. We don’t know what he knew and when he knew it, because no one will talk, including him. It seems unlikely he didn’t know. But if he didn’t and either one of them did, the mayor needs to have a very long talk with his two key law enforcement staff, because they did not serve him or the community well.

I don’t think there was a conspiracy, and I would like to think I’m not naive. I think there were several elementary misjudgments, which is surprising given the positions these three people hold. But I also can’t say that those who harbor that opinion and see something more sinister are wrong. Certainly some of the city council members feel like they were set up, and are angry about it, and some believe the chief and attorney knew all along. But we just don’t know and those who do won’t talk. And that lack of transparency in our city government troubles me more than anything.

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Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn: bjroegner@comcast.net

 

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