Special Reports

Judge calls fight over Brame records 'embarassing'

The wrongful death lawsuit spawned by the David Brame scandal won't go to trial for 10 months, but preliminary scuffles have generated more highlights than a heavyweight championship weigh-in.

The highlights so far:

•A phalanx of attorneys representing the City of Tacoma and key figures in the scandal, paid with public money, fighting to keep public records out of public view.

•An "us-too" legal motion by one of Tacoma's police unions, joining the chorus of voices determined to keep records secret.

•Depositions of Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor and sheriff's deputy Monte Henderson, interrupted by more than 100 rapid-fire objections from a Pierce County assistant prosecutor. The stop-and-start action sparked a squabble among opposing attorneys that ended the depositions last month.

Thursday, King County Superior Court Judge James Cayce called the spectacle "embarrassing," and threatened to appoint a special master to referee future depositions.

This week, The News Tribune joined the fray, filing legal briefs that oppose multiple motions to seal records of a Washington State Patrol administrative investigation into alleged misconduct by 32 city and police department employees.

Cayce will try to unravel some of the legal knots Sept. 29 - the next scheduled day for court action.

The investigative records examine the actions of employees touched by the events of April 26, 2003, when Police Chief David Brame fatally shot his wife, Crystal, then himself.

The State Patrol delivered the records to the city April 28 of this year. The News Tribune has filed requests for the records under state public disclosure laws. City Manager Jim Walton promised to release them within 30 days but has extended the deadline four times. The State Patrol also refuses to release the records.

Walton and the city's legal representatives say the investigation is "ongoing" and incomplete, and records cannot be released until it is finished. But The News Tribune has learned at least two police employees received letters from Walton in June, saying the investigation into their conduct was concluded.

"To be trusted, governments must side with the citizens," said David Zeeck, executive editor of The News Tribune. "This city administration has done the opposite. It has fought disclosure and delayed, delayed, delayed. It's time they revealed what's in the investigation, so citizens can know what was going on."

The dispute over the records runs on two legal tracks - the city's response to public disclosure requests and the court battle in the wrongful death lawsuit.

The suit names the city as the main defendant, along with former City Manager Ray Corpuz, former assistant police chief Catherine Woodard, Mayor Bill Baarsma and Pierce County. The city is paying for the defense of Woodard and Corpuz.

Attorneys for Crystal Brame's family demanded a copy of the investigative records in June, arguing they might reveal negligence by city and police department employees who knew of David Brame's erratic behavior but did nothing to prevent it.

The city provided redacted copies of the records to opposing attorneys Aug. 9, then moved to seal the records from public view, citing potential embarrassment of employees and invasion of their privacy.

Typically, court records are open to the public. Attorneys for Crystal Brame's family oppose the motion to seal the records, and the city's redactions, which black out the names of employees under scrutiny.

Attorneys for the Tacoma Police Management Association, which represents the police department's 18 lieutenants and captains, filed their own motion in July, also seeking to seal the records.

The quarrel over the depositions prompted a plea for civility from Corpuz's attorney, James Frush, who suggested a set of guidelines for future questioning that would limit objections.

"The taxpayers are paying for the entire defense of this case," Frush wrote. "They should not be burdened with the inability of counsel to conduct a deposition."

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486