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Originally published February 7, 2013 at 8:00 PM | Page modified February 7, 2013 at 11:23 PM

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Mountlake Terrace settles suit in police secretary’s firing

Mountlake Terrace has paid nearly $600,000 to settle a police secretary’s civil-rights lawsuit after she was fired for testifying in another case against the city. The city has now paid more than $1.5 million to settle two lawsuits over the actions of Assistant Chief Charles “Pete”

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Mountlake Terrace has paid the former confidential secretary to its police chief and her attorneys $587,500 to settle a lawsuit alleging Assistant Chief Charles “Pete” Caw and other city officials conspired to have her fired after she gave damaging testimony in another lawsuit against the city.

The settlement with former police administrative secretary Martha Karl comes four years after the city paid nearly $1 million to settle the suit filed by former police Sgt. Jonathan Wender, who was fired in 2005 purportedly for dishonesty. Wender sued and, relying heavily on the testimony of Karl and others, alleged that Caw and others actually had targeted him because he publicly favored decriminalization of marijuana.

Wender’s case was settled in 2009.

In her suit, Karl alleged that she was transferred, demoted and then fired because of damaging testimony she provided in depositions in Wender’s lawsuit. Her suit alleged the city had violated her First Amendment protections by retaliating against her for protected speech — her sworn testimony in a civil trial.

Her case was less than a week from trial in U.S. District Court in Seattle when the settlement was reached.

In addition to the money paid to Karl and her lawyers, documents obtained by The Seattle Times show that Mountlake Terrace and its insurer have paid $593,917 to the law firm hired to defend the city in the Karl litigation and more than $22,000 to the city’s contract attorney for legal advice in the case.

Details of Karl’s settlement agreement were not contained in the federal court docket and city officials declined to discuss it. The Seattle Times obtained a copy through a public-disclosure request.

The settlement contains a nondisclosure clause in which Karl and city officials agree not to “disparage” one another and not to “discuss the settlement with the media.”

In addition to the money, the city has agreed not to seek reimbursement for $53,113 in city unemployment benefits Karl was paid after she was fired. The city also agreed to rehire her for a day so she can officially resign.

A letter will be placed in her file for future employment inquiries indicating she left the city on her own.

In exchange, Mountlake Terrace obtained Karl’s promise that she will “never again apply for employment with the city.”

A telephone message left with Caw, the assistant police chief, was not returned. Likewise, City Manager John Caulfield declined to discuss the case.

Karl’s attorney, Andrea Brenneke, cited the nondisclosure agreement and would not comment.

City Attorney Greg Schrag referred to a portion of the agreement stating that the settlement “is not to be construed as an admission of liability” and that the “payments herein do not constitute any admission of wrongful conduct by the city of Mountlake Terrace of Charles Caw.”

Wender, who holds a doctorate and now teaches full time at the University of Washington, was an outspoken critic of the war on drugs and a proponent of the decriminalization of pot.

In 2005, after being quoted in the media, Caw and the former chief decided his views were hurting the department. They opened an internal investigation after Wender reportedly told a suspect to destroy a single marijuana plant growing alongside his house rather than arrest him. It turned out later the man had a small grow-operation in the home.

The city and the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office had him labeled as a “dishonest cop” and he was fired. That finding has since been rescinded.

Wender sued the department and Snohomish County and settled for $815,000. In addition, the city agreed to keep him on administrative leave and to pay him a $90,000-a-year salary for two years so he could retire with a 20-year pension.

During two sworn depositions in the Wender case, Karl testified that “Wender had a reputation for honesty” while her boss, former Chief Scott Smith, “had a reputation for being dishonest.” Caw was a “smooth talker” and “back stabber,” according to documents filed in her federal lawsuit.

She testified that Smith and Caw were worried that Wender’s public support of the decriminalization of marijuana was hurting the reputation of the Mountlake Terrace department. She said that, when Wender allegedly mishandled the marijuana investigation, she testified that Caw exclaimed: “We got the little (expletive deleted)!” Wender was fired over that incident.

In her case, Karl said Caw’s intent was evident in a 2008 conversation he had with the city’s personnel manager at a mediation in the Wender case.

Karl’s attorneys presented a sealed, sworn declaration by Mike Mitchell, a former Mountlake Terrace assistant chief who at the time was the police chief in Bonney Lake. Mitchell said he overheard Caw tell the manager that Karl’s testimony had “really hurt” the city and that “they could ‘no longer trust her,’ and that they would have to ‘figure out how to get rid of her.’ ”

The city fought Karl’s lawsuit for four years, at one point taking an adverse ruling by the trial judge to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A panel of three appeals judges concluded there was evidence that “Caw was motivated by retaliatory animus” when he saw that Karl was transferred from the chief assistant to the records division, where she was subjected to “unreasonable and arbitrary performance targets” and from which she was ultimately fired.

Mike Carter: mcarter@seattletimes.com or 206-464-3706

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