Special Reports

Attorneys ask for no-shred ruling

Tacoma city leaders say they won't shred unreleased documents from a State Patrol investigation of the David Brame scandal, but attorneys for the family of Crystal Brame want a judge to underline that promise.

On Monday, the attorneys filed motions in King County Superior Court, seeking both the documents and a temporary restraining order to prevent the city from destroying them. The motions cited a June 16 city memo that included references to destruction of records.

"It was very, very concerning to us that in fact they were trying to find some justification for a policy of hiding and destroying critical evidence," said David Beninger, one of the attorneys representing Crystal Brame's family and two children.

Brame, the city's police chief, fatally shot his wife and then killed himself on April 26, 2003. Crystal Brame's family has filed a wrongful-death suit against the city, charging that leaders knew Brame was dangerous and emotionally unstable but took no action to stop him.

The suit is scheduled to go to trial next year, but attorneys for both sides have been wrangling over details during the lengthy run-up. The latest debate revolves around records from a recently concluded state investigation of city employees.

Last November, a criminal investigation by the Washington State Patrol determined that employees connected to the Brame scandal broke no laws. But investigators cited cultural deficiencies within the city and police department that warranted administrative review.

A subsequent investigation, also conducted by the State Patrol, examined allegations of administrative misconduct by 33 city and police department employees. The city has not released the employees' names or the nature of the allegations they face. Leaders also said they will release only those records related to "sustained" complaints against employees. If allegations of misconduct are deemed false or unfounded, the city will not release them.

The administrative inquiry concluded April 28. For two months, the city has refused to release records of the investigation to the public. In response to public disclosure requests from The News Tribune, City Manager Jim Walton claims the investigation is "ongoing" and "pending," and cited exemptions from disclosure laws related to employee privacy.

The News Tribune has learned that at least two employees received letters from Walton in the past week, stating that investigations against them are "concluded" and allegations against them are unfounded.

After receiving results of the investigation in April, Walton said he would need 30 days to review the documents and determine whether employees violated city rules and policies.

On May 18, Walton formed a four-member review team to help him assess the report, which stretches across thousands of pages. On May 28 - the 30-day mark - he said his review was not complete. He declined to say when it would be.

On June 16, assistant city attorney Jean Homan, a member of Walton's review team, sent a memo to Walton that analyzed state public disclosure laws and their relationship to allegations of employee misconduct.

The 14-page memo, also released to City Council members, outlines several potential arguments for nondisclosure.

"When the pending investigation involves members of the police department, nondisclosure of the documents would likely be construed as essential to effective law enforcement, and thus, would be exempt under the 'effective law enforcement' exemption," Homan wrote.

"When the pending investigation involves employees outside of the police department, an argument can still be made that disclosure of the documents would impair efficient government operations and thus, is not reasonable."

The memo also discusses similar situations at the state level, and notes that when state employees are exonerated of wrongdoing, records related to investigations of their conduct can be "promptly destroyed."

Beninger characterized the memo as "kind of setting up a policy for document destruction from the get-go."

Elizabeth Pauli, Tacoma's acting city attorney, disagreed. She said attorneys for the Brame family were misreading the memo, and expressed dismay that they would raise the issue as a possibility.

"We have absolutely no intention to destroy any documents," Pauli said. "It's never been our intention."

Beninger said the records might include evidence relevant to the suit against the city, and are therefore subject to the rules of discovery that govern legal proceedings. He said attorneys met with the city June 22 and asked for the records, but received no formal reply.

Pauli said the city did not receive a formal request for the records before Beninger's motions were filed Monday.

Pauli said attorneys are likely to discuss ways to provide the documents to Beninger without making them public.

"We still have issues over protecting the rights of employees," she said.

July 9 is the next scheduled hearing date related to the lawsuit. Judge James Cayce could issue an immediate ruling on Beninger's motions, or wait for the hearing date to settle the records question.

Staff writer Jason Hagey contributed to this report.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486