Special Reports

Judge rules Brame scandal documents must go public

Long-suppressed investigative records related to the David Brame scandal must be disclosed to the public within five days, a Thurston County judge ordered Friday.

The ruling by Superior Court Judge Gary Tabor rejected a lawsuit by Tacoma’s police unions, which opposed disclosure and argued that releasing the records would violate the privacy of police department employees.

The News Tribune, which has sought the records for 18 months, argued for disclosure in court. The City of Tacoma also supported release of the records, and argued against the unions’ objections.

“There has to be consideration of what privacy means in the context of the public interest,” Tabor said, explaining his ruling. “There is indeed great concern on the part of the public.”

Tabor set a deadline of 4:30 p.m. Sept. 23 to release the records in question. They come from an administrative investigation of 33 city and police department employees, requested by the state attorney general and conducted by the Washington State Patrol in 2004.

The employees faced various allegations of misconduct and possible violations of city rules in the wake of the shootings of April 26, 2003, when Police Chief Brame fatally shot his wife, Crystal, and himself.

The city released heavily redacted portions of the records in late 2004 and early 2005. With two exceptions – former City Manager Ray Corpuz and former Assistant Police Chief Catherine Woodard – the names of the individuals under investigation and the allegations against them have never been disclosed.

The investigation determined that most of the employees did not violate city rules, but former City Manager Jim Walton would not release records that provided the basis for those decisions.

Last month, new City Manager Eric Anderson reversed his predecessor’s decision when The News Tribune renewed its longstanding request for the records.

“Because of our own research, we already know and have published what most of these employees did,” Executive Editor David Zeeck said. “What we don’t know, and what the public doesn’t know, is why the city’s leaders decided that the employees didn’t break any rules.”

After Anderson announced the city’s intention to disclose all records, two police unions, Local 26 (representing lieutenants and captains) and Local 6 (representing rank and file officers), sued to prevent the release.

Ten police department employees – eight from Local 26 and two from Local 6 – filed individual objections, saying the release would violate their right to privacy.

In court Friday, Local 26 attorney Steve Hansen argued that the allegations against police employees were based on rumor and hearsay. He added that the investigation found the employees did nothing wrong, and suggested that the release of records could chill police internal investigations.

“The release of sensitive information denigrates the process,” Hansen said. “It denigrates the people involved in the process.”

In opposition, Assistant City Attorney Cheryl Carlson echoed one of the arguments offered by The News Tribune: Much of the information in the records is already known to the public, disclosed in previous investigations of the Brame scandal.

“There’s very little privacy left because of what’s in the public domain,” she said. “The citizens of Tacoma have only been told that no findings of misconduct have occurred. They still have questions.”

Shelley Hall, attorney for The News Tribune, buttressed Carlson’s point, and emphasized that many of the allegations against the employees were revealed during a prior criminal investigation by the State Patrol.

“There are questions about the process and the agencies that protect the citizens of Tacoma,” she said. “Privacy isn’t fear of embarrassment.”

As he explained his ruling, Tabor referred to the vast number of records associated with the investigation – roughly 7,000 pages – and said he had been given 38 computer disks full of information without an index, making review almost impossible.

He also chided the union’s attorneys for not providing any details of allegations against employees. The attorneys could have provided specific examples under seal, he said.

“Up to this time, I have not received any specifics,” he said. “All I’ve been provided are general objections.”

Hansen asked if the judge would consider redacting only the names of the individual employees. Tabor refused.

“I am not going to prohibit the release of the names of those individuals,” he said. “Is that clear? Mr. Hansen?”

“Very clear, your honor,” Hansen said.

The unions have the right to appeal the decision. If they will invoke it is unclear; Hansen said he had to consult with his clients.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486