SPD misallocated asset seizure money, according to former busine - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

SPD misallocated asset seizure money, according to former business director

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SPOKANE, Wash. -

New information uncovered by KHQ is raising questions about the potential misallocation of funds by the Spokane Police Department, under former Police Chief Frank Straub.

According to documents returned as part of a public records request, a civilian specialist formerly in charge of the Spokane Police Department’s business dealings told a city official she had first-hand knowledge of how Straub "intended to accomplish his goals regardless of whether he had to break the rules."

After Straub was hired by the city in 2012, he promoted Carly Cortright to Director of Business Services, a new position responsible for records management and serving as a liaison with accounting. But she lasted less than two years in that new role. In her December 21, 2015, letter to then-Spokane Human Resources Director Heather Lowe, Cortright maintained one reason was because she questioned Straub’s “efforts to obtain funding for things that were not permitted.”

"He could not take these shortcuts"

Cortright gave more detail to her allegations in a face-to-face meeting with Lowe on January 7th, 2016. According to Lowe’s hand-written notes, Cortright claimed Straub spent money “that he didn’t have or … in ways that could not be used” - specifically “seizure funds for other purposes.”

“Seizure funds” - shorthand for asset seizure, or asset forfeiture - is a legal tool that allows law enforcement officials to seize property and cash that they assert has been involved in certain criminal activity. State law restricts how police departments can spend that money; funds from drug assets can be used only to enforce drug laws, for example. Cortright said she repeatedly tried to convince Straub "he could not take these shortcuts," but in response she claimed he "started trying to get rid of me."

Between August and October 2013, Cortright claims Straub “removed me from the organization chart at the Spokane Police Department,” and “cut off all my access.” At the same time, Cortright was shifted to City Hall; she remains employed outside of the police force, working as the director of Spokane 311, the city’s customer service and information program.

So why is this a big deal? Just to give you an idea of the kind of money involved, in 2013 - the fiscal year Cortright complained about- the Department of Justice says the Spokane Police Department reported more than $212,000 in seizures funds from forfeited property and cash, up from just over $29,000 in 2012 - an increase of more than 600%.

And Cortright’s allegations were not the first time a red flag had been raised about how the department was treating asset forfeiture cases, which by 2014 were being handled by a new ‘Civil Enforcement Unit,’ or CEU. Just months after Straub formed the unit, the top cop assigned to the CEU - Lt. Joe Walker - filed a 59-page whistleblower complaint.

The complaint called into question an allegedly improper search and seizure by the unit, which turned up more than $13,000 in cash - a seizure that Walker claimed was allegedly hidden or minimized by his supervisors.

"An opportunity to bring money back into the department"

To support his claim that department rules had been bent, Walker referenced an internal audit of Straub’s past spending connected to a grand jury probe in Indianapolis, where Straub had served as Director of Public Safety. The audit found that under Straub’s authority, $150,000 was improperly spent from the Indianapolis Asset Forfeiture Fund; the grand jury was investigating allegations that Straub shifted the money with help from the mayor of Indianapolis, to support community programs typically funded by crime prevention grants. All that money eventually had to be replenished by the department.

Concurrently, documents returned in KHQ’s public record request show Walker alerting staff at City Attorney Nancy Isserlis’ office about his concerns with the CEU. Walker told Assistant City Attorneys Mary Muramatsu and Erin Jacobson he was concerned with the purpose of his unit. He described how Straub told senior staff in a July 2014 meeting that the Civil Enforcement Unit was “an opportunity to bring money back into the department.” Walker also decried a lack of legal oversight of the CEU - the unit was supposed to have its own lawyer, but none had been assigned.

Learning from any mistakes that were made

So what happened next? The City of Spokane hired an outside attorney to investigate Walker’s whistle-blower complaint, who found that Walker’s supervisors had done nothing wrong. However, a follow-up letter from Walker’s union, the Police Lieutenants and Captains Association, asserted that the complaint hadn’t been handled properly by the city; the $13,000 in cash eventually had to be returned to its original owner. As for Walker, a short time after filing the whistle-blower complaint, he was asked by Assistant City Attorney Jacobson if he would be willing to accept an offer to retire early. Walker didn't take the offer, calling it an attempt to push him out for speaking up.  

Regarding Carly Cortright’s claims to the city about department spending practices, Mayor David Condon’s spokesman told KHQ Tuesday evening those are part of the ongoing independent investigation of the police department and how the city handled Frank Straub’s departure late last year. The city won’t comment on this matter until that investigation is concluded; Condon did say through his spokesman that the city plans on learning from any mistakes that were made.

In court Wednesday: City's "uninvestigated, inaccurate accusations of 'untruthfulness'"

An email seeking comment from Straub through his attorney about these allegations has not been returned; it is important to note that no one has alleged that any money was spent by members of the Spokane Police Department for personal or illegal gain. For his part, Straub has already followed through on his $4 million tort claim against the city, the mayor, and the mayor’s top staff. He officially filed his lawsuit in February, claiming his civil rights were violated when he was forced to resign last fall. Straub’s lawsuit alleges Condon’s administration orchestrated “a series of contrived and uninvestigated accusations” against the veteran law enforcer, including “stigmatizing and inaccurate accusations of ‘untruthfulness,’ unfitness, and implied immorality.”

Straub’s lawsuit is scheduled to go before a federal judge Wednesday morning; Chief Justice Thomas Rice is scheduled to hear defense arguments asking him to dismiss Straub’s case. In filing her counter motion, Straub’s attorney - Mary Schultz - went even further in her accusations that the city had set Straub up for failure, asserting that two 'no-confidence' letters purportedly written by Straub's top police commanders “may actually have been prepared, not by the named police executives, but by the administration itself.”

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