Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Good Questions

OpenCdA.com readers "steve" and "Stebbijo" asked some good questions about why alleged corruption in Coeur d'Alene has not been investigated. Their questions are good, because people observe things going on and intuitively know those things are wrong. The people who care enough about their community to stick their necks out and subject themselves to Coeur d'Alene's culture of intimidation complain to the proper authorities and then receive either unsatisfactory replies or no replies at all. Almost inevitably, these people begin to wonder if anyone is listening.

My post titled Good Questions on the OpenCdA.com website is an effort to try and explain why the apparent absence of action does not necessarily mean citizens' legitimate complaints have gone unnoticed.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Kootenai County Prosecuting Attorney

Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas announced he will not seek reelection this November. Here are some questions for discussion:
  • What is your understanding of the job of the Kootenai County Prosecutor? What do you believe the prosecutor’s duties and responsibilities are?
  • What are your expectations for the person elected to that position?
  • What do you consider to be the most and least important personal qualifications for the Kootenai County Prosecutor?
  • Identify a candidate who has the professional qualifications you believe to be essential for the prosecutor’s position? Explain why that candidate is qualified.
  • Over the next four years, what do you believe the most significant challenges for the Kootenai County Prosecutor will be?
  • If you could give the new prosecutor one piece of advice, what would it be?

The Kootenai County Sheriff

Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson announced he will seek reelection this November. Here are some questions for discussion:
  • What is your understanding of the job of the Kootenai County Sheriff? What do you believe the sheriff’s duties and responsibilities are?
  • What are your expectations for the person elected to that position?
  • What do you consider to be the most and least important personal qualifications for the Kootenai County Sheriff?
  • If you consider Watson to be professionally qualified to be sheriff, what are his strongest and weakest qualifications?
  • If you consider Watson to be professionally unqualified to be sheriff, identify a candidate who has the professional qualifications you believe to be most important? Explain why that candidate is more qualified than Watson.
  • Since 2000 what has been Watson’s greatest accomplishment and his greatest failure? Feel free to name more than one in either category.
  • Over the next four years, what do you believe the most significant challenges for the Kootenai County Sheriff will be?
  • If you could give the sheriff one piece of advice, what would it be?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The City Responds

In my February 15, 2008, post titled Better Than a Gold Watch, I expressed curiosity about the employee services consulting contracts given to three recent retirees (and their spouses) who had been employed by the City of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

My post titled The City Responds on the OpenCdA website provides the information I received from the City in response to my Idaho Public Records Law request. Because of the length of that post, I've linked to it rather than repost it here in its entirety.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Big Loophole - Intentional Ignorance

In a press conference this morning, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden announced that the Idaho State Board of Education may have engaged in a non-knowing violation of Idaho’s Open Meeting Law. The AG’s decision is based on a recent Idaho Supreme Court decision which effectively allows intentional ignorance as an affirmative defense to alleged violations of that law.

One of the critical factors in applying the Open Meeting Law’s nullification and penalty portions is that the violation must have been “knowing.” That requirement arises from the Idaho Supreme Court case State of Idaho v. Rick Yzaguirre, Chairman, Ada County Board of Commissioners, Judy Peavey-Derr, Member, Ada County Board of Commissioners, Fred Tilman, Ada County Board of Commissioners.

The Attorney General’s entire report of his office’s investigation is available here.

The Idaho Supreme Court’s decision in Yzaguirre has created what may seem to be a nearly impossible standard for prosecutors to meet. They must prove alleged violators “knowingly” violated the law. In the absence of offenders’ writings and utterances, how do they demonstrate the violators knew they were violating the law?

AG Wasden insightfully recognized this and took steps to administratively close the loophole. The Ada County Board of Commissioners will be required to attend training in the Idaho Open Meeting Law.

Training in the Idaho Open Meeting Law, the Idaho Public Records Law, and the Idaho Ethics in Government Law ought to be mandatory before any Idaho elected or appointed official is allowed to assume a position of public trust. The State already has a statewide mechanism set up to provide training to these officials. It is the Idaho Peace Officers Standards and Training Academy. That academy has regional representatives who could be used to set up and even administer the training. After all, the AG’s office provides the booklet training material free to any requestor either in hard copy or online.

It is worth mentioning that a few years ago, The Spokesman-Review newspaper sponsored an Open Meeting Law - Public Records Law seminar in Coeur d’Alene. Attorney General Wasden and his deputy, Bill Von Tagen, presented the training on behalf of the AG’s office. Coeur d’Alene’s Mayor and City Council just could not find the time to attend. Perhaps they knew that if they attended, they might be held accountable for compliance.

The Idaho legislature needs to adopt AG Wasden’s “fix”: Require all public officials who are subject to these laws to attend certification training and periodic retraining. Remove the “intentional ignorance” defense from their arsenal of weapons of mass evasion.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Better Than a Gold Watch!

It must be great to retire from employment with the City of Coeur d’Alene and quickly have the City reward you and your spouse with an employee consulting services contract.

I was searching through some calendar year 2007 Coeur d’Alene City Council minutes and stumbled across these three items.

1. October 2, 2007, Coeur d’Alene City Council passed resolution no. 07-063 authorizing an employee consulting services contract with Wendy Carpenter and Tim Trout, wife and husband. Is Wendy Carpenter not the recently retired City police chief and her husband not the recently retired City code enforcement officer?

2. September 4, 2007, Coeur d’Alene City Council passed resolution no. 07-058 authorizing a contract for employee consulting services with Richard F. Suchocki and Georgia A. Suchocki, husband and wife. Is Richard Suchocki not a recently retired city engineer?

3. May 15, 2007, Coeur d’Alene City Council passed resolution no. 07-041 authorizing a contract for employee consulting services with Dan and Doris Cochran, husband and wife. Is Dan Cochran not a recently retired deputy fire chief?

It would be interesting to see what employee consulting services these retirees and their spouses are providing under these contracts. It would also be nice to know the dollar value of each contract.

Such a deal!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Genesis of a Federal Criminal Investigation

A growing number of people in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, are expressing an opinion that the city government's urban renewal agency, the Lake City Development Corporation or LCDC, ought to be investigated by the federal government. One public perception is that local and state prosecutors and law enforcement officers lack the resources and may be politically compromised so they are unable to conduct such an investigation.

Unless the reader has been directly involved with a major federal white collar crime or public corruption investigation, it may be difficult to understand how such an investigation is launched, how much time it will take, and what resources will be required.

Many people rely on the news media and particularly newspapers to research and report stories based on allegations of public corruption or fraud, waste, and abuse of public money. But these types of investigations are costly for the newspaper just as they are costly for investigative agencies. It can be expensive for a newspaper to commit resources to the kind of coverage that would explain the genesis and execution of a major, long-term federal investigation.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer from Seattle, Washington, has made the commitment in its series about the Port of Seattle. Most of the P-I's stories in the series were written by P-I Reporter Kristen Millares Bolt. The well-written stories and supporting documentation help us understand what it takes to get a federal criminal investigation started when the allegations and evidence are complex.

The P-I's reporting starts in late 2006 with an article titled Audit finds overbilling, bid dispute at port.

Another P-I article in late December 2006, this one by Investigative Reporter Ruth Teichrob, is titled Lax oversight at Port of Seattle. This article may be of particular interest to Coeur d'Alene residents who pay close attention to the LCDC and its personalities as well as to the elected officials who are expected to oversee the LCDC. The Port of Seattle is a municipal corporation in Washington in the same sense that the LCDC is a municipal corporation in Idaho.

Now fast forward one calendar year to December 20, 2007. Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag released a 334-page performance audit report titled Port of Seattle Construction Management - Report No. 100008. The second paragraph of Sonntag's cover letter presenting the report reads as follows:

We are pleased to present the reports of that audit, which brings to light serious and pervasive issues in the Port's management of these [port construction] projects. According to the audit, the Port Commission provided insufficient oversight over contracting practices and the Port did not have adequate systems in place to protect taxpayer dollars from misuse, abuse, and misappropriation. To the degree the Port had these in place, they were not always followed.
The report's six major findings contain the kind of language that would most likely trigger an investigation. Those findings, in brief, are:

    • Port construction management lacks cost controls and accountability.
    • The Port circumvents competition requirements in violation of its own policies and sometimes in violation of state law.
    • Port policies and Port management's interpretation of its policies result in a lack of transparency and thwart Commission oversight of construction management activities.
    • Port construction management records are incomplete and disorganized.
    • The Port fails to enforce basic contract requirements, resulting in delays, extra costs, and an inability to defend against claims.
    • Port construction management is vulnerable to fraud, waste, and abuse.

With the blunt language in Auditor Sonntag's report, it is no surprise the P-I continued to follow up with more stories. It is also no surprise that on January 4, 2008, the US Department of Justice, Office of the United States Attorney for the Western District of Washington, sent a letter to Washington State Auditor Sonntag stating, in part, "Our office, in conjunction with federal law enforcement agencies, is conducting a criminal investigation of the Port of Seattle. This investigation is a product of your office's December 20, 2007, Performance Audit Report of the Port of Seattle."

The cited letter formed the basis for P-I Reporter Kristen Millares Young's January 8, 2008, story headlined Feds open criminal inquiry into port. The subhed read, "Audit alleging waste, fraud catches U.S. attorney's eye." The articles lead paragraph explains why. It reads:

The U.S. Attorney for Western Washington is conducting a criminal investigation of the Port of Seattle based on a state performance audit of the port's construction management, which found the port wasted $97.2 million during contracts active from 2004 to 2007.

The reader can reasonably ask, "Since the Port of Seattle is a municipal corporation, what gives the federal government investigative jurisdiction?" The overly simple answer is that the Port of Seattle receives federal money, so the federal government has an obligation to ensure that money is spent lawfully and according to the rules under which the money was disbursed. As noted in the cover letter from the contract auditor to state Auditor Sonntag: "POS [Port of Seattle] derives its revenues from airline rates and charges, ad-valorem tax levies, passenger facility charges, and federal grants."

What does this tell us about the genesis of a federal criminal investigation?

First, it tells us that the events ultimately alleged to be criminal often evolved from legal to illegal. The transformation from legal to allegedly illegal may take years.

Second, it tells us that private citizens may have an inkling, an intuition, that something illegal is going on, but they may not have the authority or resources to completely reveal the questionable behavior. It may take a government agency with authority of law, in this case the Washington State Auditor acting under his authority of Washington State Initiative 900, to fully analyze the facts and reveal the behaviors.

Third, it tells us that federal law enforcement agencies take the facts and conclusions in these types of reports seriously, particularly when it seems likely that federally supplied money was involved.

Finally, it tells us that once the investigation has started, it may again take a long time to conclude.

It's a long road from genesis to revelation.

Addendum 01-08-2008: The Seattle Times has also picked up on the story about alleged corruption in the Port of Seattle. It has run a story headlined Possible fraud at Port focus of criminal probe by Times Staff Reporters Jim Brunner and Bob Young. The Times story also reports "...cozy relationships between Port employees and contractors..." and "[current Port CEO] Yoshitani said the problems identified by auditors were not due to corruption, but to a hard-charging, get-things-built culture that sometimes flouted the Port's own policies." Only a thorough investigation will affirm or refute Yoshitani's assertion.

Addendum 01-09-2008: The Seattle Times story today is headlined Port tells panel it's making changes; auditors disagree. The lesson to be learned is that once the purported overseers lose the trust and confidence of the people, it is difficult to get it back. That's particularly true when the overseers say one thing yet fail to carry out their promises.

Addendum 02-13-2008: According to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article today, "The Port of Seattle Commission will hire former U.S. Attorney Mike McKay to lead its internal investigation of the port in the wake of the state auditor's blistering critique of the port's construction management. "

So...What's the Problem?

Reporter Annie Linskey's February 13, 2008, Baltimore Sun article headlined Cameras turn lens on police activities says that some Baltimore police officers are upset their actions are being caught on video by citizens with cameras.

Why? What's the problem?

The police could have made a good argument that if someone with a weapon-sized object in his hand shows up at a serious or violent crime in progress, that person could distract the police. A camcorder held in one or both hands at eye height can easily and reasonably be misinterpreted to be a handgun. If the cameraman distracts the officer’s attention from a target with a real weapon, the officer’s safety is jeopardized. The officer’s choices have both been doubled. Instead of one possible target/threat, he has two. Which one is the more viable threat? In less than the time it took to read that last sentence, the officer can become either a shooter or a victim. The police could have made that argument, but they didn’t.

As long as the camera wielding citizens are not creating a threatening distraction, compromising ongoing investigations, or directly interfering with the officers, the officers have little to worry about.

As the article noted, citizen videos ought to result in law enforcement agencies paying closer attention to citizen's complaints. The videos may show officer misconduct, but they may also show its absence.

Videos help hold people accountable for their actions. The police have been using undercover videos for decades now to hold criminals accountable and to impeach criminals when they testilie. Time and again dashboard video cameras on patrol cars have substantiated officers’ proper conduct and refuted unsubstantiated allegations against them.

The police may be uncomfortable by being on camera, but turning the lens 180 degrees to enhance police accountabilty is appropriate. If they don't have anything to hide...

Monday, February 04, 2008

Finally! A Newspaper Columnist That Gets It!

"And the first thing you need to know about the criminal-justice system is that it is not a system. It is a collection of independent duchies that do what they want, when they want, and how they want to do it."

This was a line from columnist Tom Ferrick, Jr.'s final column in The Philadephia Inquirer. The column was posted on Sunday, February 3, 2008, and was headlined Tom Ferrick Jr.: Policing alone won't solve crime problem.

Please take time to follow the link to his column. Read it carefully. In a few hundred words he has accurately summarized the weaknesses of our criminal justice system.