'Safecogate' one of many false rumors about Brame

December 14, 2003 

Just about everyone with an ear tuned to Tacoma political gossip knows the "Safecogate" conspiracy theory.

It stems from chatter among city insiders, a report in a Seattle newspaper and a national television network's coverage of the David Brame scandal.

Together, those sources paint the picture of a scheme cooked up by Brame and then-City Manager Ray Corpuz to cover up a case of insurance fraud against Corpuz's wife, Lynda, in 1998.

The theory holds that Brame, a police captain in 1998, knew about the fraud investigation, blocked it and alerted Ray Corpuz. The city manager repaid him, or perhaps surrendered to blackmail, by promoting Brame to police chief in 2001.

Since Brame fatally shot his wife and himself April 26, scores of rumors linked to his name have swept through the city. Amid reports of his dictatorial management style, sexual obsessions and calculating maneuvers, the Safecogate scenario feels authentic: Up-and-coming cop saves boss from shame; grateful boss elevates cop to high position. An explanation so simple must be true.

But it isn't - not according to records of the Safeco case, or the memories of those who delved into it five years ago.

False facts, exaggerations

Two prosecutors, a Pierce County prosecutor's investigator and two former Safeco investigators who handled the 1998 case say recent portrayals of Brame's role are distorted, and in some cases, just plain wrong.

"There's nothing that I have seen written down anywhere, or anything that anybody's said, that puts Brame in direct contact with Ray Corpuz about the insurance company's interest in pursuing this matter," says Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge, who handled the 1998 investigation at Pierce County's request.

"I can't recall hearing until after Brame's death that he had anything to do with that case - I certainly wasn't aware of it," says Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, who was the county prosecutor at the time and forwarded the case to Hauge to avoid conflicts of interest.

"Kennedy assassination theories all over again," says Bill Garrison, Pierce County's chief investigator on the case.

Truth and hyperbole mingle in the convoluted cover-up theory. Its roots date to April 7, 1998, when a Safeco investigator told Tacoma police about the company's suspicions that Lynda Corpuz had submitted a false insurance claim.

On May 14 of this year, The Seattle Times published a story that lent credence to the Safecogate scenario. In September, a CBS newsmagazine, "48 Hours," covered the same ground.

The Times story, headlined, "Police didn't press fraud case against Corpuz, wife," said Tacoma police did not investigate the fraud case against Corpuz, and that Brame hindered the inquiry by passing Safeco's complaint up the police department chain of command instead of assigning the case.

The CBS account struck a more ominous note. "Brame knew certain things about Corpuz," the show's announcer intoned.

Both accounts failed to mention that by not pursuing the case, Tacoma police leaders were following Safeco's recommendation.

Contrary to the tone of the Times and CBS reports, Safeco did not want the Tacoma Police Department to investigate the Corpuz case, said Frank Kampsen, the Safeco investigator who urged Tacoma police on April 7, 1998, not to investigate.

"I insisted that they turn it over to an outside agency," Kampsen says. "They agreed. They didn't want anything to look like it was being covered up or anything."

Kampsen remembers speaking to a detective, a lieutenant and a captain. He later learned the captain was Brame.

Public records and court documents show what happened next. Brame explained the situation to William Woodard, then an assistant chief (Woodard is also the husband of former assistant police chief Catherine Woodard, a key figure in the Brame scandal).

After hearing about Safeco's concerns, William Woodard told then-Police Chief Philip Arreola. Arreola told Woodard the Tacoma Police Department would not investigate the case - a decision that reflected Safeco's wishes and Arreola's concern about avoiding potential conflicts of interest.

Records show Brame's role was limited to passing information up the chain of command. Was he wrong to do so?

"No," says Garrison, the Pierce County investigator. "If I were in the same position, I would be heading directly to my superior and saying, 'We've got this situation.' Yeah, I would go to a superior. There's no question."

The tip-off

Arreola's next move was the true source of Safeco's ire. The day after Kampsen's visit, he told Corpuz about the insurance company's investigation.

At the time, Arreola openly admitted doing so, and said he did nothing wrong.

Arreola did not respond to a News Tribune request for an interview. But documents from the 1998 investigation, gathered by the State Patrol, reinforce Arreola's account.

Safeco investigators had said they could not reach the Corpuz family. In an interview, Arreola told an investigator he thought that was "b.s.," since Corpuz worked every day at City Hall.

Still, Safeco's investigators were unhappy.

"It's criminal to inform the suspect in a criminal investigation," says Karen Cobb, one of Safeco's special investigators at the time.

What happened next is another component of the Safecogate theory. Two months passed before the case was referred to Pierce County.

The delay has been cited as evidence of the police department's failure to act promptly. Hauge, Ladenburg and Garrison criticize it, saying the Tacoma Police Department should have referred the case to another agency more quickly.

But interviews and a close reading of public records suggest Safeco itself contributed to the delay. Also, the Pierce County Sheriff's Department was told about the case, but backed away after learning the prosecutor's office was involved.

On April 8, 1998, the same day that Arreola alerted Corpuz, Lynda Corpuz called Safeco. Internal documents from the insurance company show she was upset that police had been notified.

"You people do not understand," she said. "My husband runs the City of Tacoma."

The next day, Lynda Corpuz's attorney called Safeco. The attorney, Vern Harkins, asked Safeco not to contact law enforcement agencies until he had reviewed documents related to Safeco's fraud allegation.

Safeco agreed, documents show. An internal memo written by Cobb indicates that she planned to speak to Safeco's attorney and seek advice about further contact with law enforcement. An April 16 memo describes Cobb's discussion with Lynda Corpuz's attorney.

"As I promised Mr. Harkins, I will hold off on further action until he returns from his vacation," Cobb's memo states.

Additional records show that Safeco and Harkins continued to negotiate for the next month.

A June 4 progress report written by Cobb states, "There has been no update for some time, as I have only been corresponding with the insured's attorney, Vern Harkins, and our attorney, Ted Buck, to set up a meeting to discuss this case."

Cobb's June 4 report also states that she planned to meet with Garrison, the Pierce County prosecutor's investigator, the next day.

Though records show Safeco took more than a month to proceed with its case, Ladenburg and Garrison say the police department still should have referred the case to Pierce County immediately.

"The only thing Arreola did wrong was tell Ray about it," Ladenburg said. "He should have just referred it out right away."

The May 14 Seattle Times story states that Arreola said he gave the fraud investigation to the Pierce County Sheriff's Department. The story then quotes sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer, who said the sheriff's office "never touched" the case.

But documents from the state's Brame investigation show that Arreola did tell Pierce County about the case. The records include a 1998 interview with Arreola, where he describes a call to then-Pierce County Sheriff Mark French and Undersheriff Paul Pastor.

When reached by The News Tribune, Pastor, speaking through Troyer, said he remembered the call from Arreola, who described the fraud case and the connection to Ray Corpuz.

"Arreola asked (Pastor) for advice on what do," Troyer said. "Paul told him to have an outside agency look at it."

So why didn't Pierce County take the case?

"We were never asked," Troyer said.

Troyer said that while Arreola sought advice, he never provided a formal referral. Soon after that, the sheriff's department learned that Safeco representatives had contacted the prosecutor's office. That ended the sheriff's interest, Troyer said.

Ultimately, the prosecutor's office took the case. Ladenburg asked Hauge, the Kitsap County prosecutor, to handle it.

Garrison was the assigned investigator. The May 14 Times story reported that Safeco wanted the prosecutor to investigate Tacoma police for failing to pursue the case or refer it to another agency.

Garrison and Cobb say there was no talk of investigating the police department for failure to pursue the case. But the insurance company did want Arreola punished for tipping off Corpuz.

"We thought there should be some consequence for whoever told the Corpuzes they were being investigated," Cobb said. "I believe that was the extent of it."

In the end, Hauge accepted Lynda Corpuz's confession, and referred her to a diversion program for first-time offenders. In exchange for admitting her guilt, she avoided criminal charges and a conviction and made restitution to the company.

Ray Corpuz was not charged, though his signature appeared on the original insurance claim. In her confession, Lynda Corpuz said she was entirely responsible for the fraud and that her husband knew nothing of it. Corpuz said he did not read the claim form.

Hauge also investigated Arreola's tip-off to Corpuz and found no basis for a criminal charge. Arreola stepped down later in 1998 at Corpuz's urging, after a series of clashes with police department employees.

"If somebody did a favor for Ray's wife, it was Arreola," Ladenburg says. "And he got canned."

The big payback, or lack thereof

The last leg of the Safecogate theory suggests Ray Corpuz promoted Brame as payback for his assistance in the fraud case.

The "48 Hours" report that covered the Brame scandal drew a direct connection between the Safeco matter and Brame's appointment as chief. With Brame in charge, Corpuz knew the police department would "look the other way," the report stated.

Corpuz would not respond to requests for comment. But his attorney, James Frush, calls the theory "insane." The promotion occurred because Brame enjoyed wide support from local leaders and the community, he says.

Frush represented Corpuz at the time of the Safeco investigation, and recalls the details. Like others involved in the case at the time, Frush says Brame was never mentioned.

"This thing is made out of whole cloth," he said. "It's made out of really irresponsible people connecting dots that aren't close to each other. Ray is investigated, Brame is promoted, ipso facto, he was promoted because he didn't prosecute Ray. It's like looking for Communists in the closet.

"They want to make it Hollywood," Frush said. "And it's just Tacoma."

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486

• As the echoes of gunshots faded, the tide of rumor swelled.

Within hours of Tacoma Police Chief David Brame's fatal shooting of his wife and himself on April 26, scores of allegations ripped through the City of Tacoma.

A six-month investigation by the Washington State Patrol dispelled many of those rumors, and inquiries by The News Tribune debunked even more.

This two-part series looks at the most prominent rumors in the Brame case and attempts to set the record straight.

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