HT Center for Justice, Spokane, WA

Award winning investigative reporter Tim Connor of Camas Magazine wrote this article about the recent convening of the State’s Sunshine Committee in Spokane.  Connor testified before the Committee on his personnel experiences in seeking documents regarding the RPS bond fraud.  This is an excellent read that serves as a primer on how the fraud was perpetrated by those involved.
Ron the Cop


Pieces of Sunshine

River Park Square souvenirs for Washington’s “Blue Ribbon Committee” on public records exemptions.

By Tim Connor

One of the more colorful inter-generational touchstones in my family is a salty Texan who passed away just a few years ago. His name was Chuck Cole and he was a fixture at Washington State University’s Murrow School of Communications long enough to shove both my uncle and me into our careers as journalists.

Professor Cole posed as a curmudgeon. But at heart he savored good reporting and, without betraying any notion that he could be easily impressed, he loved good reporters. He tried to teach his students to write well and quickly, get their facts straight, and do interviews without embarrassing themselves.

His specialty was public affairs journalism, the grinding art of reporting on government.

Journalism bends toward the “he said, she said” form. But Chuck Cole wanted us deeply engaged in the essence of the craft. Don’t be satisfied with official explanations, he insisted, find and write the truth. He taught this in the way football coaches exhort offensive linemen on hot August afternoons and I will not distract you, here, with his mild profanities. His basic admonition was that there’s often a world of difference between the reality that presents itself in press releases and the actual truth of the matter. And when it comes to covering government, there’s nothing as useless to a reader and a voter as a reporter who is content to be just a good stenographer.

There was an empty seat next to mine a week ago Tuesday, and I wished he could have filled it.

I was at Spokane Falls Community College, to offer testimony for the so-called “Sunshine Committee.”

I now work for the Center for Justice, I explained, but I was there to speak for myself, as the lead reporter on Camas Magazine’s burrowing investigation (2000 thru 2004) into the River Park Square fiasco.

Three days before the Sunshine Committee came to town I made a decision: I would try to show more than tell. Rather than making just another impassioned plea for open government, I would share some of the nitty-gritty details of how lawyers working for the City of Spokane had tried to exploit a serious crack in the state’s public records law, and explain how this effort cost Spokane taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

There were a couple reasons for this, but the main reason is that absent specifics, the opposing sides in this argument tend to talk past one another. Each has a legitimate point to make. Yet, frankly, my side has been losing the argument because public agencies and their lawyers (no surprise here) are better positioned to effect public policy than are journalists.

The other reason, of course, is that I’m just one of those people who won’t shut up about the River Park Square debacle and what it demonstrates about a peculiar sort of corruption to which Spokane seems especially vulnerable. On this, I would note, the federal Internal Revenue Service seems to agree with me. Spokane’s public records problems (it lost two cases and settled a third) were an extension of what the IRS, four years ago, termed the “particular relationship” that the city had with Cowles family companies in which “public deception” was used to disguise the city’s complicity in the “extremely flawed” RPS transaction.

There are devils in the details of how open government closes down to protect public officials from the public. Working with lawyers at the Center for Justice and a Seattle law firm, we had captured several on paper. Like a kid with fireflies in a mayonnaise jar, I wanted to show them to the Sunshine Committee.

The Sunshine Committee exists because of Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna. To his credit, McKenna took notice that when voters created the state’s public records law by initiative in 1972, there were only ten exemptions to the requirement to produce requested records. Today, there are more than 300, so many that no one is actually sure just how many ways an agency can get around producing a requested document. McKenna found that unsettling and he went to the legislature to request a “Blue Ribbon” committee that would meet regularly to examine the proliferating exemptions, and make recommendations on which to eliminate or modify. The committee was formed last year and is chaired by Seattle City Attorney Thomas Carr.

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