Timing, skill, luck propelled Brame's rise to power

Gleaming image, political maneuvering led to 2001 'coronation'

June 15, 2003 

Patrick Stephens figured Ray Corpuz would ask the question eventually. Finally it came.

"If I pick you," Tacoma's city manager said, "what role would you have David Brame play?"

They were alone. The rest of the Dec. 14, 2001, interview had been routine. This question was not.

Stephens, deputy police chief in Cleveland, knew his answer. He knew the hard words might ruin his chance to become Tacoma's next police chief. He said them anyway:

"Brame would have to go."

It wasn't that he thought his rival was a bad cop. He could see the man was competent. There was something else.

"I knew in my heart that this guy would be working at cross purposes to me every day I was there," Stephens says now. "I didn't think he could handle somebody coming from the outside and taking the job that he perceived to be his.

"He wanted it too badly."

Two weeks after the final interview, Corpuz chose Brame.

The chief's appointment and subsequent swearing-in - some in the police department called it "the coronation" - crowned a quiet campaign Brame began to mount at least six months earlier, a campaign Stephens sensed immediately.

"That was obvious to me after I was in Tacoma for 15 minutes," he says.

Since Brame fatally shot his wife and killed himself April 26, questions about his rapid rise to the chief's office have haunted City Hall. To the citizens and local leaders who assessed him before his appointment, his image gleamed. It was burnished by a 20-year record of service, gilded with commendations and praise.

Most didn't know about his questionable past or gaps in his references, nor were they concerned about how he overcame internal rivals with more experience. His appointment reflected skillful political maneuvering, long-term planning and more than a little luck.

Brame sought support from city and community leaders, and from Local 6, the influential police union he once led as vice president and chief negotiator. He offered help to those who could help him, co-opted rivals within the police department, and softened or neutralized opposition.

While he campaigned aggressively, Brame's greatest asset may have been timing. His star rose as the city and its police department ached with a hangover from Wisconsin import Philip Arreola's turbulent two-year reign as chief.

Arreola's autocratic style and his clashes with the police union fed the perception that Tacoma's department needed hometown leadership. Brame pressed that advantage during his campaign, never missing an opportunity to flash his native-son credentials.

"My identity is Tacoma," he said repeatedly. "The Tacoma Police Department is in my blood."

TWO ROADS

On July 10, 2001, Tacoma Police Chief James Hairston, Arreola's successor, ended months of speculation and announced his retirement, effective at the end of the year.

The formal search for a new chief didn't start until September, but the jockeying began long before Hairston's announcement.

The road to the chief's office was forked. One route was public, the other private. Brame straddled them simultaneously.

One led through public meetings, citizen panels, a media gantlet and routine questions from people worried about car thieves and drug dealers.

The other marked a trail through Tacoma's political power centers. Brame knew that terrain, and he may have been mapping it as early as 1998, when Hairston took as chief from Arreola.

Hairston had logged 30 years in the department at the time. His was a caretaker's administration, and the prospect of his inevitable retirement fueled the ambitions of younger officers who had chafed under Arreola's leadership. An outside audit of the department conducted in May 2001 mentioned "a lot of people vying for the chief's position," and "top commanders" building individual kingdoms.

Capt. Dave Olsen, who retired from the department in mid-2000, remembers teasing Hairston about it.

"I joked to Hairston, 'You need to hire a food taster,' because these guys were gunning for his job," Olsen says.

Much of the maneuvering revolved around the two assistant chiefs, Brame and Ray Roberts. In sworn testimony during an unrelated lawsuit, Olsen described the department during Hairston's three-year tenure as a dysfunctional family, divided into factions.

Brame and Roberts "were very, very interested in becoming chief," Olsen testified. "They would snipe at each other and sabotage each other and badmouth each other."

By 2001, the question was no longer if Hairston would retire, but when. The path was opening, but Brame faced a potential obstacle.

In January of that year, a 1988 rape complaint against him surfaced in an employment-discrimination lawsuit filed by police Lt. Joseph Kirby. Assistant city attorney Shelley Kerslake asked Brame about the allegation. He confirmed it, and asked her who else he should tell. Kerslake suggested a meeting with Corpuz.

On March 2, accompanied by Kerslake, Brame explained the circumstances to the city manager: Yes, he had been accused of date rape while he was still a patrol officer, he said. A woman he once knew said he forced sex on her and used his police-issued handgun to intimidate her.

But, Brame added, he denied the charge. And after an internal investigation by the police department, then-Chief Ray Fjetland reviewed the complaint and found that it was not sustained, meaning it could not be proved.

Corpuz said he would look into it. The meeting ended.

When Hairston announced his retirement, Brame's name appeared for the first time in media reports as a potential successor. The race was on, and he was ready.

THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL

Few who remember Brame's campaign saw anything sinister in it, then or now. Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor recalls a day in summer 2001 when Brame told him he was thinking of "throwing my hat in the ring" for the job. Brame wanted the sheriff's advice, and if possible, his backing.

"And that's what you should do," Pastor says now. "All of that is something you would expect from someone who says, 'I have my eye on this goal.' There's nothing odd about somebody talking to people, seeking support for an office that they want."

Like other local leaders who participated in the process that led to the chief's appointment, Pastor said he never knew the darker side of Brame's record: his hiring despite a failed 1981 psychological evaluation; the 1988 rape complaint; or an allegation of domestic violence in his marriage.

As far as he knew, Brame was a good candidate: a 20-year veteran of the department, youthful but serious, praised as a rising star, tapped by the hometown newspaper as someone to watch.

In September, just as city leaders were preparing to begin a national search for a new chief, the police union flexed its muscle and alarmed Corpuz by conducting independent interviews of potential candidates. Leaders refuse to name the candidates but say Brame was not among them. Reportedly, they spoke to about half a dozen individuals in the Puget Sound region.

Brame actively lobbied Local 6, as TK Knickerbocker remembers it. Knickerbocker, now a candidate for City Council, worked as a consultant for the union at the time, hired to help improve the union's public image. Brame pushed hard for the union's backing, she said.

Support was not unanimous. Brame was a divisive figure, liked by some members, scorned by others.

"It was thought by some (members) that he was very self-interested, had been very intent his entire career on being promoted and moving, just very fixated on that," she said. "Some just genuinely did not like Dave Brame."

Where Brame could not get firm endorsements for his campaign, he fought for second place, with the union and other potential supporters. He spoke to Fjetland, who said he had already endorsed another in-house candidate, Capt. Charles Meinema.

That was fine, Brame said, but could he count on Fjetland's support if he turned out to be the only remaining local candidate? Fjetland agreed.

THE RIVALS

Within the department, Brame faced competition from four potential rivals: Meinema, Roberts, Deputy Chief Mike Darland and Capt. Catherine Woodard.

All had more experience in the department, ranging from Woodard's 24 years to Darland's 29. Brame had only 21 years, but that included his stint as the union vice president, which placed him in the forefront of negotiations with city leaders.

Darland dropped out first. The respected veteran had been a finalist for the chief's job in 1996. But he lacked a bachelor's degree, a new requirement for the chief's position, added in 2001 by Corpuz.

Darland e-mailed Corpuz about the educational standard, asking if it meant he couldn't apply. Corpuz said yes. One down.

Woodard, the only female candidate, presented the greatest threat to Brame. She was popular with community leaders and the union, and well-liked at City Hall, according to Knickerbocker and other insiders.

Since she was placed on administrative leave the week after Brame's death, Woodard has refused comment on the scandal surrounding the late police chief.

But sources close to her say she withdrew her name from consideration for the chief's position at Brame's urging, and because she feared possible retaliation.

Those sources say Woodard, then a captain, feared Brame would work against her if she sought the position. He would make her life miserable, either by undermining her if she became chief or sabotaging her career if Brame were the victor.

Those sources also suggest Brame promised Woodard a promotion in exchange for her withdrawal. Before he was appointed, Brame told City Councilman Doug Miller he planned to make Woodard an assistant chief. On his first day in office Jan. 14, 2002, Brame promoted Woodard to assistant chief of operations.

Woodard's name never appeared on the list of likely candidates. She spoke to the union and endorsed Brame.

Two down. That left Brame with two opponents from the department: Roberts and Meinema.

THE CANDIDATES

In late October, city leaders announced that 33 candidates, including three from within the Tacoma Police Department, had applied for the chief's position. Within two weeks, after a review of all applications by the city Human Resources Department, the number dwindled to eight. They included Brame, Roberts and Meinema.

Meinema, a 29-year veteran of the department, never thought much of his chances, despite Fjetland's endorsement. He was a boat-rocker - one of those who complained loudly during the Arreola years. Plus, he never endeared himself to Corpuz.

After Fjetland retired in 1996, Corpuz had asked other ranking officers if they were interested in the chief's post.

Meinema, then an assistant chief, said no, and less than gracefully told Corpuz why.

"I told him it wouldn't be a good fit," Meinema says, "that he represented special interests in the city, and I represented the other 185,000 taxpayers and blue-collar residents."

Next came Roberts, assistant chief of the Investigations Bureau.

Roberts knew Brame could be vindictive and petty. Intelligent and articulate, too, but the sort who never forgot a slight.

They had clashed in the early '90s when Roberts was a lieutenant in Internal Affairs and Brame was the union negotiator. Roberts had resisted Brame during a dispute over Internal Affairs complaints - it revolved around how many representatives an officer could bring to an IA interview. He remembered Brame turning "red as a beet" during the argument.

Then there was the water cooler incident. At the police substation on South 38th Street, someone had moved the only water cooler in the muggy station from its location near Brame's office door to an area closer to the center of the building.

Brame fired off a disciplinary memo, and ordered the water cooler moved back. Officers took up a collection and bought another one.

"You were either on his team or against him," Roberts says. "He was a paranoid sort of guy."

Roberts told Brame of his plans to seek the chief's position. Brame didn't discourage him.

Still, Roberts wasn't sure he wanted to apply. He had more experience, but the grapevine said Brame had the job sewn up.

"I firmly think that thing was wired," Roberts says.

He went to Corpuz before applying, and asked if the choice had already been made. Corpuz said no.

In November, eight local leaders, including deputy mayor Mike Crowley, chief assistant city attorney Elizabeth Pauli and deputy city manager Jim Walton, interviewed the eight semifinalists by phone. Panelists saw résumés and job applications, but no personnel files or disciplinary records. None heard about the rape allegation against Brame or the failed psychological evaluation.

"We got no background investigation material, current or otherwise," said John Pirak, director of Pierce County's Law Enforcement Support Agency. "All the information we got was from the candidates themselves."

One of the panelists was John Batiste, a captain with the Washington State Patrol who would join the Tacoma Police Department the following year as one of Brame's assistant chiefs.

Batiste said he knew Brame professionally at the time but not as a personal friend. During the police chief selection process, he spoke of the need to give internal candidates a chance at the chief's chair.

"It didn't matter who they were," he says. "My concentration wasn't about anyone in particular but for people within the organization having an opportunity to succeed."

Panelists asked the candidates about their histories. Was there anything embarrassing in their past? Something that could hurt the city's image?

Most remembered minor gaffes: old parking tickets, or driving to the Puyallup Fair in a police car.

Alone among the candidates, Brame said no.

At the end of the telephone interviews, panelists narrowed their choices to four candidates. Brame was one of them, but not for everyone.

"My recollection was that I didn't have him in the top half," said Pirak. "It wasn't significant. Everybody had their favorites, and the majority ruled."

A week after the telephone interviews, the four finalists were announced.

Meinema and Roberts weren't among them. Neither was surprised.

Four down.

Only Brame was left among the local candidates.

THE NATIVE SON

Within two weeks, his odds improved again. Two of the three out-of-town candidates took their names out of the running.

One, Albuquerque, N.M., Police Chief Jerry Galvin, accepted an offer for a chief's position in California. The other, Phoenix assistant police chief Kevin Robinson, said his fiancee had just earned a new job and didn't want to move.

That left Brame and Stephens, the candidate from Cleveland.

In the pages of The News Tribune, a steady stream of letters began to flow, touting the virtues of local police chief candidates in general and Brame in particular.

Two came from the Retired Tacoma Police Officers Association, an organization that included Brame's father among its founding members. Others came from residents such as I.L. Edersheim and Gordon Ferguson, who did not know Brame personally but wanted to warn the city against hiring another outsider.

One came from Juanita Carenbauer, who attended the marriage of David and Crystal Brame in 1991. Carenbauer knew and worked with Crystal's mother, Patty Judson. No one lobbied her either, she said, she just wanted the people downtown to know she was sick and tired of outsiders messing up the department.

As far as she knew, Brame was "just a most personable young man. He came from a good family. I would have bet my life that he probably would have been the best chief we ever had. My intuition failed me."

In Tacoma's Human Resources Department, Phil Knudsen and Mary Brown watched Brame's campaign gather speed.

"He orchestrated, led this groundswell of opinion for the hometown boy," said Knudsen, the department's director. "I was concerned that if Ray (Corpuz) hired him, he was going to be outside of Ray's control. And Ray said, 'Yeah, I think you're right, Phil. But this whole thing has gone political.'"

Brown admits she didn't like Brame much. As the assistant director, she knew him from negotiations with the police union and felt he was manipulative. To avoid the appearance of bias, she had other city staff members handle his reference checks.

Among City Council members, Brame's name swam in friendly political waters. Members knew his growing reputation in the community. They knew he had been a student of Mayor-elect Bill Baarsma at the University of Puget Sound, and Baarsma had publicly mentioned Brame as "an outstanding candidate" for chief.

"There was a broad scope of people who had seen or had observations or thoughts about who would be the next best chief for the City of Tacoma," says Councilman Miller. "I did not hear of anyone during that process who recommended anyone other than David Brame. I admit to feeling that he was the right choice."

That fall, Tacoma police Lt. Bob Sheehan, known by some police department insiders as Brame's "campaign manager," visited council members and stumped for the native son.

Councilwoman Sharon McGavick remembers Sheehan's visit. "He asked me if I'd support David Brame for police chief," she says. Sheehan would not comment on his campaigning, citing the ongoing investigation.

McGavick says Corpuz consulted with each council member about the chief candidates before announcing his choice.

"This was a group decision," she says.

Support for Brame was widespread but not organized, says Councilman Kevin Phelps.

"It was more that, for those who had been around City Hall for a long time, there was an expectation that David would be the next police chief," Phelps says. "He was on the right track, and when he became assistant chief, there was an assumption that he was being groomed as the next chief."

Though he heard stories that lobbying was going on, Phelps said he has only second-hand knowledge.

"When I made contact with the police union, they made it known to me that the mayor-elect had certainly made it known that he was on board with David Brame, but I never heard Bill (Baarsma) say that."

THE INSIDER

Dec. 13, 2001, was the home stretch.

Brame and Stephens sat through four meetings. The first, in the morning, was a panel of community members, including Sheriff Pastor, Paul Ellis of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, the Rev. David Alger of Associated Ministries of Tacoma/Pierce County and Pierce County chief deputy criminal prosecutor Jerry Costello.

Again, panelists saw job application materials but little else.

"We were provided pretty limited information about the two men - basically a résumé," Costello says. "Certainly we did not hear one word about red flags or problem areas in their backgrounds. There simply was not a hint about anything negative about either of them."

Alger's memories are similar. He heard nothing controversial about either candidate. No one lobbied him, either, but he sensed a strong push for an internal candidate.

"There was an awful lot of talk about support for David Brame that you heard, but nobody ever directly tried to influence me," Alger says.

"I had the distinct impression that the person who was coming from the outside had to rise a significant level above the person who was coming from inside."

Both candidates came across well, he says. Brame gave a spit-and-polish interview. Stephens seemed like a straight shooter. Alger liked him.

So did Costello, who says he told Corpuz that Stephens seemed the better candidate. "He appeared to be a bit better-qualified on paper, though both were qualified," Costello says.

But Brame had strong support. His champions included Sheriff Pastor, who openly backed the hometown candidate. Also, Corpuz wanted to promote from within.

"If he was determined to hire from within the department, which is the impression that I got, Brame would seem to be a decent candidate for that," Costello says. "In all candor, my sense of it was Mr. Corpuz had already made up his mind that he was going to hire from within, and it seemed like this was a final stamp of approval."

The panel recommended Brame. Two more meetings followed - one with city department heads later that morning, the next with union members after lunch.

Brame referred constantly to "my administration," and what he would do if appointed. Stephens thought the man sounded like he was running for president.

At some point during the endless meetings and gatherings, Stephens met Crystal Brame. They chatted briefly, and he asked about her children.

She glanced toward her husband, waiting for his nod before answering even innocent questions. It struck Stephens as odd behavior for a seemingly modern woman, but he didn't think much more of it.

The last meeting of the day was a community forum at 6 p.m. in City Council chambers. Citizens peppered Brame and Stephens with questions. Uniformed Tacoma police officers sat silently in the audience.

Brame, reading from notes, led with his practiced native-son speech. Stephens, blunt and unrehearsed, joked that he could never be a Mariners fan. Nobody laughed.

"I felt like Davy Crockett at the Alamo," he says now.

He felt isolated, but some citizens took a shine to him. "Strong leadership, would not take excuses," one wrote anonymously on a feedback form.

"Will probably rock our boat," wrote another. "If you really want to try for efficiency, try Stephens."

Other writers praised Brame, calling him the local boy. "Roots, roots, roots," one said.

"The people of Tacoma want a chief from Tacoma," another wrote. "Just hold a poll and confirm."

One anonymous writer wasn't so sure about Brame.

"Once you make him chief, how would you get rid of him?" the writer asked. "Firing the home-town, 100-year-family-service, union-mentored chief would be hideous."

The forum ended the public meetings. All that remained was the final interview with Corpuz the next morning and the inevitable Brame question.

Stephens knew anything less than the truth would be unfair. It was all or nothing now.

What role would you have David Brame play?

Whether Corpuz gave any thought to Stephens' reply is uncertain. He would not comment for this story, citing the ongoing investigation of the Brame scandal.

One thing was clear. If Corpuz hired Stephens, it would mean the end of Brame's 20-year career with the department.

A BUMPIER ROAD

At City Hall, Brame's campaign jounced over speed bumps. Knudsen and Brown weren't happy with his references. Six of the 13 he listed could not be reached.

Brame did not list Hairston or Arreola - his two most recent supervisors - among his references. The city called them anyway, but the two chiefs refused to say anything about Brame.

Three more references told them something in Brame's past could prove embarrassing, though they wouldn't say more. Brown noted the difficulties in the final executive summary of Brame's candidacy and forwarded the report to Corpuz.

The union, supposedly hell-bent for an internal candidate, wound up rating Brame and Stephens even. According to Brown, Corpuz said union leaders quietly indicated that if Stephens were hired, Local 6 would not complain.

With only a few days remaining before Corpuz was expected to announce his choice, Brown got a message from a high-ranking police officer she will not name.

The officer told her about domestic violence in Brame's marriage to Crystal. In a briefing session before the appointment, Brown told Knudsen and Corpuz.

"I said, 'Ray, I've received this information. The person will not go on the record. I just feel like you need to know this,'" Brown said.

"Do you have any proof?" Corpuz asked.

"No."

"OK."

At some point in the late stages of the appointment process - Brown cannot say precisely when - Fjetland, listed as one of Brame's references, responded to a call from the Human Resources Department and spoke to Brown.

Fjetland told Brown that Brame had been unfaithful to his wife in the early years of their marriage. He thought the couple had worked through their problems, however, and believed Brame was a changed man. The two men had prayed together, Fjetland said. Brown asked Fjetland to call Corpuz.

Whether the two men spoke before the appointment is a disputed question. The day after the shootings, Fjetland told The News Tribune he never spoke directly to Corpuz about Brame, or about the 1988 complaint.

A few days later, Corpuz held a news conference, and said that before the appointment, he spoke directly to Fjetland about Brame and "an incident with a woman that had been reviewed." He added that he counted on Fjetland's recommendation of Brame as a worthy chief.

As the deadline for the appointment approached, Knudsen raised the domestic violence issue with Corpuz again, at Brown's urging. In late December, Brown got a phone call at home from Knudsen.

"Ray told me to stop it," Knudsen told Brown. "If we can't prove it, he doesn't want to hear it again."

On Dec. 28, Corpuz chose Brame.

"He has the overall experience and combination of talents to make this department move forward," Corpuz said in a prepared statement.

Looking back on the Brame appointment, the Rev. Alger thinks he may have been naive.

"I was working under the assumption when I was working with that committee, that the various background things had been done," he says. "I had just assumed that they had done all the things one would do in recruiting for a position like that.

"And I wonder as I look back on this incident, if we people in the city were victims of just assuming that things were done thoroughly, because we had trust and faith in the people we were dealing with."

EPILOGUE

On the weekend of April 26, news of Brame, gunfire and blood reached Patrick Stephens in Cleveland.

Tacoma wasn't his city. He had given his best in 2001 and moved on, without rancor, without looking back. But he had to know more.

He read the stories, and felt no vindication, no I-told-you-so rush. Only sadness.

Such a shame. Those two little kids.

Crystal Brame was still alive, the reports said. Stephens pictured her: small and pretty, with long black hair.

He read more stories in the days that followed, searching for news of her. One said Crystal squeezed her mother's hand in the hospital.

Maybe she was going to make it. He let himself hope.

Two days later, she was gone.

Staff writers Martha Modeen, Jason Hagey, Karen Hucks, Stacey Mulick, Kris Sherman and Barbara Clements contributed to this report.
Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486
sean.robinson@mail.tribnet.com

The vetting teams

Finalists for the Tacoma police chief position were screened by four panels before they were quizzed by the public and then had a final private interview with Tacoma City Manager Ray Corpuz.

Initial screening panel

Jim Walton, deputy Tacoma city manager

Elizabeth Pauli, chief assistant city attorney

Barbara Young, program manager, city manager's office

Andy Michels, city's risk manager

John Pirak, director, Law Enforcement Support Agency

John Batiste, captain, Washington State Patrol

Sally Perkins, Central Neighborhood Council

Mike Crowley, mayor

Union panel

Scott Haines, business representative, Teamsters Local 599 (now Local 117), representing police secretaries and forensic staff at the Tacoma Police Department

Mary Ann Brennan, business representative, Local 599

Lt. James Howatson, president, Local 26, representing Tacoma police captains and lieutenants

Capt. Mark Langford, vice president, Local 26

Wayne Beals, vice president, Local 6, representing Tacoma police patrol officers, detectives and sergeants

Pat Frantz, president, Local 6

TK Knickerbocker, consultant, Local 6

Department heads panel

Robin Jenkinson, city attorney

Eileen Lewis, fire chief

Bill Pugh, director, city Department of Public Works

James Walton, deputy city manager

Juli Wilkerson, director, Tacoma Economic Development Department

Diane Supler, director, office of management, budget and analysis

Community panel

Linda Evans, regional administrator, Community Services Division, state Department of Social and Health Services

Paul Pastor, Pierce County sheriff

Paul Ellis, Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, metropolitan development director

Federico Cruz-Uribe, Tacoma Pierce County Health Department

Jerry Costello, Pierce County chief criminal deputy prosecutor

The Rev. David Alger, Associated Ministries of Tacoma-Pierce County

On the Net

Readers interested in learning more about David Brame's appointment as Tacoma police chief can find more details on www.tribnet.com.

News Tribune coverage since the April 26 shootings includes several stories related to the chief's appointment.

* References should have eliminated Brame

www.tribnet.com/brame/story/

references.html

* Brame not a good fit for chief, test showed

www.tribnet.com/brame/story/test.html

* Two finalists for police chief - which would you have picked?

www.tribnet.com/brame/story/finalists.html

All of The News Tribune's coverage

of the Brame scandal is available at www.tribnet.com/brame.

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