Fearing the loss of a lawsuit, attorneys for the City of Tacoma urged a halt to a 2004 administrative investigation of the David Brame scandal, and opposed findings of misconduct against two key figures, according to recently released public records.
Then-City Manager Jim Walton rejected the legal advice, and sustained findings of misconduct against ex-City Manager Ray Corpuz and former Assistant Police Chief Catherine Woodard. He also rejected suggestions from attorneys to withhold his findings from the public.
“The record is the record,” Walton said last week in an interview with The News Tribune. “I was bound to look at the record. The public expected us to look at that information and make the right call.”
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The impasse between Walton and his legal advisers reflected one facet of a larger internal conflict that still rankles.
Some City Council members opposed findings of misconduct, criticized Walton for his conclusions and questioned the need for public disclosure.
At the same time, police department employees, angered by what they saw as an unfair investigation, fought against public disclosure of the records even as they sought unredacted copies for themselves.
“Close to the end, it was pretty clear that I was on my own,” Walton said.
Correspondence between the attorneys and Walton appears in records of a 2004 administrative investigation of the scandal, touched off by the shootings of April 26, 2003, when police chief Brame fatally shot his wife, Crystal Judson Brame, and himself.
Attorneys feared the investigation would hurt the city’s defense of a wrongful-death suit filed by the family of Crystal Judson Brame. The suit, settled last month for $12.5 million, accused city leaders of negligence.
The investigative records, disclosed by the city Oct. 14, span more than 20,000 pages and examine allegations of misconduct by more than 30 employees. Most were cleared of wrongdoing.
Who made the call
The records include rare glimpses of documents that discuss legal strategy. Typically, such documents are exempt from disclosure, protected by the attorney-client privilege.
The suggestion to halt the investigation came from Tim Gosselin, a private attorney hired by the city to defend the wrongful-death suit. On Nov. 24, 2004, Gosselin wrote to Walton, advising him not to issue findings on Corpuz or Woodard. He reminded Walton of earlier advice that took the same position.
“It was our recommendation that you not make a disposition of the issues pertaining to Mr. Corpuz and Ms. Woodard because a full and fair investigation is not possible in light of the pending civil litigation,” Gosselin wrote.
Gosselin’s position underscored the difficulty of conducting an investigation and defending a lawsuit at the same time. Corpuz and Woodard, both named defendants in the lawsuit, had declined to be interviewed by state investigators, citing the litigation.
“Both individuals were in the understandable position of being unable to participate in the administrative investigation and defend themselves,” Gosselin told Walton. “That situation prevented you from being fully informed on all the issues and reaching a fair decision.”
Last week, Walton said he understood Gosselin’s position.
“Private counsel had every right to try and protect the city’s interest,” he said.
Walton got similar advice from Assistant City Attorney Jean Homan, who analyzed many of the allegations in the investigation.
In a Sept. 15, 2004, memo, Homan questioned Walton’s preliminary findings against Corpuz, and raised the specter of him suing.
“Mr. Corpuz is represented by a competent attorney, who is actively protecting Mr. Corpuz’s interests in the context of the ongoing Brame litigation,” Homan wrote. “In the event you make sustained findings and those findings have the potential to either impair Mr. Corpuz’s reputation/integrity or impair his ability to find and obtain employment, Mr. Corpuz is very likely to sue the City of Tacoma.”
At one point, Walton felt Homan became too aggressive in her defense of Corpuz, and told her so, he said.
“I thought she went from advising to advocating,” Walton said.
‘No turning back’
From City Council members, Walton faced similar criticism. During a stormy executive session on Oct. 12, 2004, Walton faced what he calls his most difficult day in 30 years of public service. He told the council that he planned to sustain misconduct findings against Corpuz.
“Some of the members didn’t like it at all,” he said, declining to name names.
An internal memo edited by Walton and released in the investigation records reveals the points he tried to make to council members.
“It was no secret that top managers were included due to allegations of corruption during the criminal investigation,” the memo stated. “If you did not want me to proceed or you wanted me to make employees exempt, it would have been helpful if you made that clear from the beginning.
“I felt once I started the investigation, there was no turning back,” the memo later added. “… I could not conveniently look the other way when some obvious failures occurred.”
The same day, the city released a few fragments of records from the investigation – roughly 200 pages of 20,000, so blackened with redactions that they were incomprehensible.
Walton had deferred to Homan and other legal advisers on public disclosure issues, he said. When he saw the ink-covered pages, he was disappointed.
“The enormous amount of redaction made no sense to me,” he said. “Gee whiz – why even bother?”
What about the rumors?
Police commanders were equally angered by the investigation. A year later, some still view it with bitterness. They say they faced allegations stemming from unfounded rumor: One commander was accused of picking up prostitutes by a source who was never named.
Others were accused of conducting surveillance on Crystal Judson Brame.
Capt. Mark Langford, president of one of the city’s police unions, faced accusations that he removed evidence from Brame’s apartment after the shootings. In fact, he wasn’t there, and played no role in the search.
“If this thing had been properly administered, some of this stuff would have been called for what it is right at the start,” Langford said in a recent interview. “I understand where Walton maybe felt his hands were tied a little bit. He had to present an objective image to the community. But it just seemed to me the State Patrol investigators sat down and had a brainstorming session.”
Capt. Charles Meinema, another police commander who faced an allegation that turned out to be unfounded, gave a pithier assessment of the patrol’s investigation.
“Like being mauled by a pit hamster,” he said.
“It was unfortunate that a lot of rumors came into the game,” said Police Chief Don Ramsdell, Brame’s successor. Ramsdell faced several allegations, all of which led to findings of unfounded or exonerated.
“It adversely impacted a lot of people,” he added. “A lot of good people.”
Walton knows as well as anyone how many of the allegations turned out to be baseless.
“There were no big wows or silver bullets in that information,” he said. “The outcome is the outcome.”
Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486