Special Reports

Separate counsel for Corpuz, Woodard

City of Tacoma taxpayers will likely pay for separate outside attorneys to defend two former top city officials at the center of the David Brame scandal.

Fired City Manager Ray Corpuz and retired assistant police chief Catherine Woodard, who are both named individually in the lawsuit brought by the family of Crystal Brame, should not be represented by the same firm defending the city because of the potential for a conflict in legal strategy, the city's firm has decided.

Although lawyers wouldn't talk about any specifics, partly because they don't yet have a clear picture of the case, the move raises the possibility that the city's defense could point a finger at Corpuz or Woodard.

The development also increases the complexity and cost of the lawsuit, but it doesn't mean the city is backing away from its legal obligation to defend either of its former employees.

The City Council is scheduled to vote tonight on a resolution allowing city officials to sign a contract with the Seattle firm Wolfe Leinbach to defend Woodard. The contract is expected to be worth approximately $400,000 and will cover services up to the time of a trial.

A similar agreement for Corpuz likely will be coming before the City Council soon, said City Attorney Robin Jenkinson.

City officials say they have little choice but to hire more attorneys based on their reading of state law, city code and what they know about the specific allegations against Woodard and Corpuz.

State law and city code both obligate the city to defend current and past employees in lawsuits that are based upon conduct that occurred in the "course and scope of employment," officials say.

Police Chief David Brame fatally wounded Crystal and then killed himself in the parking lot of a Gig Harbor shopping center. The couple had been going through a contentious divorce.

Crystal Brame's family blames the defendents for giving David Brame power and a weapon and then not carefully watching him.

Until they know about the specific allegations against Woodard, it's hard for lawyers to make a decision about whether she was acting outside the scope of her job.

Woodard, a personal friend of David Brame's, accompanied him to his in-laws' house to pick up Brame's children shortly before the shootings, prompting Crystal Brame to call 911 to complain about the visit.

Woodard also knew approximately a month before the shootings about Crystal Brame's allegations that Brame had threatened her life and about the chief's unsuccessful efforts to lure a female police officer into group sex.

Woodard was singled out for criticism by Attorney General Christine Gregoire following a six-month investigation of the Tacoma Police Department.

Although the investigation found no basis for criminal charges, it found that Woodard showed "extraordinarily poor judgment" that revealed a "serious lack of insight." Woodard's attorney has maintained that she did nothing wrong.

In voting on tonight's resolution, council members will not be making any determination on the question of whether Woodard's actions were within the course of her job, Jenkinson said.

It's most likely to be resolved during the course of the litigation, lawyers said, although interim Police Chief Don Ramsdell will need to make an initial "threshold" determination before the city actually signs off on any contracts, she said.

Ramsdell, speaking through police spokesman Mark Fulghum, said Monday that he had no comment on the matter.

The city reserves the right to re-evaluate the decision based on information that comes to light during litigation, officials added.

If it's determined later that Woodard did something outside the course of her job, Mayor Bill Baarsma said, "All bets are off."

John Strait, a Seattle University law professor, said the city faces some tactical legal challenges regardless of whether it chooses to stand behind its former employees by paying their legal bills or cut them loose.

If the city decided she did something outside the scope of her job and chose not to pay for Woodard's defense, she might have more incentive to settle with the plaintiffs, Strait said.

On the other hand, by extending legal protection to Woodard, the city is to some degree accepting the blame for whatever wrong actions she is determined to have committed, he said.

"It's a double-edge sword," Strait said.

Any money the city pays for lawyers to represent Corpuz or Woodard will be in addition to what it's paying the Tacoma law firm Burgess Fitzer to defend against the lawsuit. The City Council has approved about $1.9 million in payments, which is expected to cover costs up until the case goes to trial.

The lawsuit names the City of Tacoma, Corpuz, Woodard, Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma and Pierce County.

Although Baarsma is singled out just as Corpuz and Woodard, he is not being similarly excluded from the city's main defense. He will be defended by Burgess Fitzer.

Jill Stone, one of the city's Burgess Fitzer lawyers, said she couldn't comment on the implications of her firm's decision to represent Baarsma but not Woodard or Corpuz.

Baarsma said he was satisfied with the arrangement and saw no need to hire his own outside lawyer.

"I frankly am not quite sure why I've been named in the first place," he said.

Jason Hagey: 253-597-8542

jason.hagey@mail.tribnet.com

What's next

Inside

5 P.M. TODAY: The Tacoma City Council meets in the first-floor chambers at City Hall, 747 Market St.

NO. 9: Another judge is assigned to hear the case. A6

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