Special Reports

Judge delays release of Brame files at least two more weeks

The release of long-suppressed public records related to the David Brame scandal will wait at least another two weeks, a Thurston County judge ruled Monday.

At the same time, Superior Court Judge Gary Tabor swatted the city’s police unions, noting that their collective bargaining agreements cannot override state laws governing public disclosure.

Tabor imposed a temporary restraining order that stopped Tacoma leaders from releasing the results of a state investigation into possible misconduct by 33 city and police department employees linked to the scandal.

On April 26, 2003, Brame, the city’s police chief, fatally shot his wife, Crystal, and himself. The shootings led to a series of investigations of Tacoma government and the police department.

The investigation of employee misconduct, recommended by the state attorney general, was the third and final inquiry. It concluded between April and October 2004.

For more than a year, the city has refused to release records of the investigation, despite multiple requests from The News Tribune.

Last week, City Manager Eric Anderson announced his plan to release the records, including the names of employees, the allegations against them and the findings of the investigation.

The city’s two police unions – Local 6, which represents most officers, and Local 26, which represents captains and lieutenants – immediately sought the restraining order.

The unions argued that Anderson’s decision violated their contracts, changed past practices regarding the release of internal investigations and threatened to violate the privacy rights of department employees.

“We’ve had a 180-degree reversal,” said Stephen Hansen, attorney for Local 26. “The city has basically gone back on its word.”

According to court documents, at least 20 of the 33 targeted employees are members of the police unions. Prior investigations and public records show at least five others who were investigated, including high-ranking commanders, work for the police department but are not members of the unions.

Attorneys for the City of Tacoma and The News Tribune opposed the motion by the unions.

Assistant city attorney Cheryl Carlson noted that “the bulk of the information” in the administrative investigation previously had been released following a criminal investigation by the Washington State Patrol in 2003.

“All of the matters that could give rise to a privacy right are already out in the public arena,” Carlson said.

Shelley Hall, attorney for The News Tribune, asserted the public’s right to the documents.

“The scandal of the Brame murder-suicide shook the public trust,” Hall said. “This investigation, which has been withheld from the public for more than a year, has again shaken the public trust.”

Tabor, a visiting judge, heard the case on short notice. Conflicts within Pierce County and the speed of motions filed Friday by the unions forced the argument into his courtroom.

Legal briefs from The News Tribune and the City of Tacoma arrived Monday, less than half an hour before the hearing began.

“I hope no one thinks I’m taking this lightly,” he said.

First he tackled the unions’ arguments regarding collective bargaining and disclosure.

“To be candid with you, I think that’s a rather simple issue,” Tabor told the union attorneys. “The Public Disclosure Act trumps any private agreements, in this court’s opinion.”

Tabor then shifted to the question of notification. He asked whether all employees targeted by the investigation had been notified about the release of records. Carlson said she wasn’t sure, but the law didn’t require it.

Tabor insisted that the employees be notified of the potential release and given the opportunity to object if they wish.

He said the law required such notification, though he read a section of the Public Disclosure Act that refers to notification as an option, not a requirement.

“I’m going to grant a temporary injunction until such time as persons who may be named in this report may object,” he said. “I recognize the unusual nature of what I’ve just said. Rather than have a bell rung that cannot be unrung, we’re going to delay this for a short period of time.”

His ruling requires the city to notify all the employees named in the records within 10 days. Their objections must be filed before Sept. 16, the next court date.

David Zeeck, executive editor of The News Tribune, said the judge’s ruling was disappointing.

“We expected that the temporary restraining order would be issued – but we’re frustrated, because we’ve been asking for this for more than a year,” Zeeck said. “The Tribune believes that these people know they’re named in these reports.”

Mark Langford, a Tacoma police captain and president of Local 26, said the union will continue to oppose disclosure of records that resulted in unsustained findings against police department employees.

“Personal information was put into these reports that really has no basis at all,” Langford said. “ Rumor and malicious gossip, that’s what it is.”

Sean Robinson 597-8486