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Originally published December 21, 2011 at 3:08 PM | Page modified December 22, 2011 at 7:05 PM

Union complaint triggered SPD news-leak probe

A complaint from the head of the Seattle police union prompted the Police Department to hire an outside law firm to help investigate a leak to the news media, according to newly disclosed records.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Leak investigation documents

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A complaint from the head of the Seattle police union prompted the Police Department to hire an outside law firm to help investigate a leak to the news media earlier this year, according to newly disclosed records.

The investigation cost the city $12,000 in taxpayer money, a department spokesman said Wednesday.

The Seattle law firm of Ryan, Swanson & Cleveland was hired after information was leaked in March on the department's internal investigation of an incident in which Officer Shandy Cobane threatened to beat the "Mexican piss" out of a prone Latino man. The investigation did not find the source of the leak.

The investigation was launched after Sgt. Rich O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, wrote a March 3 letter to Police Chief John Diaz complaining about the leak. O'Neill noted that the leak to a television station occurred about one day after a meeting in Diaz's office to discuss the internal investigation.

O'Neill said the leak violated department polices and labor agreements, adding, "This serious misconduct cannot be tolerated and must be thoroughly investigated."

The leak also "led to a news crew showing up at one of the involved officer's homes and confronting the officer as he carried groceries into his home," O'Neill wrote. "This was not only embarrassing, but unsafe for the officer."

James Shaker, the head of the law firm's employment law group, said Wednesday the investigation was carried out for a few weeks, primarily in March and April, by Richard Lentini, another employment lawyer in the firm.

Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a department spokesman, said Monday the investigation occurred after "information regarding an active disciplinary case was divulged and we were concerned that this would have adverse impacts on our accountability process."

Shaker said his firm was brought in because Police Department officials who normally conduct such an investigation had attended a meeting where the leaked information was discussed.

Twelve people attended the meeting in Diaz's office and it was assumed that "one or more" discussed the meeting with someone else and that information was provided to KING-TV, according to Police Department records released Thursday under a public-disclosure request by The Seattle Times.

Or one of the people in the meeting may have spoken directly to KING-TV, the documents state.

Diaz ordered the leak investigation after a March 2 story reported by KING-TV. The chief had two assistant chiefs, who did not attend the meeting, set up the scope of the law firm's work.

The firm was hired to avoid a conflict of interest, since each person who attended the meeting was to be interviewed, according to the documents.

In that story, reporter Linda Byron reported that Diaz wanted to fire Cobane for using ethnically inflammatory language but that the department's legal adviser told Diaz during the meeting Cobane probably would get his job back on appeal if that were to happen.

Diaz ultimately announced in May that he had decided to suspend Cobane for 30 days without pay, along with other disciplinary actions, including demoting Cobane from gang detective to officer.

At the time of the leak investigation, Diaz had grown frustrated about news leaks, according to department sources.

Earlier, The Seattle Times reported confidential information related to an officer's fatal shooting on Aug. 30, 2010, of First Nations woodcarver John Williams, including that the knife Williams was carrying had been found in the closed position and that the department had reached a preliminary finding that the shooting was unjustified.

Diaz came under intense scrutiny after the shooting and the April 17, 2010, video-recorded incident involving Cobane, as well as other high-profile confrontations between officers and citizens.

The department was the subject of a preliminary investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into whether Seattle officers had engaged in a pattern of unnecessary force, particularly against minorities. A full investigation was opened March 31, leading to findings last week that the department routinely had used excessive force and that its treatment of minorities raised serious concerns.

During the leak investigation, a Seattle police captain, a lieutenant overseeing the Cobane internal investigation and a third commander were among those questioned.

When told Lentini would be doing the questioning, the management association that represents captains and lieutenants invoked a section of its contract with the department requiring that the three be questioned by a department member of equal or higher rank up to assistant chief.

Questioning was then turned over to a captain in the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which handles internal investigations, the management association's president, Lt. Eric Sano, said on Monday.

No disciplinary action resulted from the investigation, Sano said.

An OPA sergeant involved in the Cobane internal investigation also was questioned, one source said. The sergeant is a member of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild.

Mayor Mike McGinn on Monday backed Diaz's decision to hire an outside attorney, saying sometimes it's necessary to conduct such inquiries.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

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