More murk in campaign for Snohomish County executive

  • By Scott North and Noah Haglund
  • Thursday, October 13, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

Our Need to Know post on Friday evening, offering new details and some public records linked to a contr

oversy in the Snohomish County executive race, touched off a weekend of online arguing and political fireworks.

Here are some more details and developments, including information about an attempt that was made to keep people from learning some of what we reported.

What follows is deep inside-baseball, we realize, but it speaks to the integrity of the two campaigns and The Herald’s coverage, so let’s get it on the record.

We filed public records requests at the Mill Creek Police Department as part of an ongoing effort to determine the precise role a full-time member of County Executive Aaron Reardon’s staff has played in unearthing embarrassing records from an 11-year-old traffic stop involving Mike Hope. A Seattle cop and Republican state legislator, Hope is trying to keep Reardon, the Democrat incumbent, from winning a third term.

Some people, notably Reardon employee Kevin Hulten, contend that we’ve been burying the story, or somehow abetting Hope by not poring over to their satisfaction what is contained in records about the 2000 incident.

It’s politics.

Reardon’s campaign has put the documents up online on his campaign’s website.

More on that in a moment.

Hope has admitted that he was out of line in how he behaved as a passenger in that long ago traffic stop. He doesn’t question that he earned a brief suspension without pay in 2001 after an internal affairs investigation by the Seattle Police Department. He also acknowledged that he should have handled matters differently a couple weeks back when Hulten provided records about the incident to The Seattle Times and reporters began calling. If he could do it over, Hope said he would have waited to reply until after he reviewed the paperwork to make certain his recollections matched the records.

Some of what he said didn’t.

Hope told us it took most of last week for him to obtain from Seattle police the same records that Hulten was sharing with reporters. On Friday, he provided us with dozens of pages from his personnel file.

In our post Friday, we acknowledged access to those documents and tried to explain why readers wouldn’t find the whole collection on our site:

“We’ve opted not to post Hope’s entire personnel file. What we’ve been given are his work records, and the amount of news value isn’t equal to the time and energy required to make them Web ready. If Hope wants you to read his pay history, details of the training he’s received or letters of thanks from people he’s met on the job, that’s his call.”

We did post the disciplinary portion of Hope’s Seattle P.D. personnel file (which Hulten had introduced into Mill Creek police records as part of his public records request).

Still, some of the anonymous commenters on HeraldNet argued that this was an effort to hide something significant and directed readers to Reardon’s campaign website.

Judge for yourself.

Over the weekend, Hope himself posted everything he gave us online.

What you won’t find there are the Mill Creek police incident reports from 11 years ago, nor the memo that one of the officers sent to Seattle P.D., complaining about Hope’s conduct that night.

Those are Mill Creek police records, not part of Hope’s personnel file.

Like any police report, they contain allegations that are contested. We’ve got those records, too, and have reported on their contents as we believe appropriate. Again, if you want to read the records for yourself, they are here on Reardon’s campaign website as part of an election pitch.

Our records request to Mill Creek police zeroed in on who had sought the documents and when.

Records the city provided last week show the first request came Sept. 6 and was made by John Chambers, a Hulten associate from Seattle who has admitted filing campaign-related complaints against Hope in Seattle and Olympia.

Hulten made his own request on Sept. 8. He had a copy of Chambers’ request when he showed up at the cop shop claiming to be “Stephen K. Hulten,” and somehow, records show, city officials were led to believe he was working on a story for a weekly newspaper in Lake Stevens, where he is an occasional contributor.

The third request was made on Sept. 29 by The Seattle Times. It came about an hour before Hulten emailed us to decline an interview, telling us he’d spent the afternoon sharing details from Hope’s personnel file with the other paper’s newsroom.

Getting the information to connect these dots didn’t come easy.

Last week, Mill Creek city attorney Shane Moloney called to say that progress on the Herald’s records request would be delayed at least 24 hours. Mill Creek was forced to tap the brakes, he explained, because two of the three parties who had earlier sought the Hope records were aware of our inquiry and had contacted the city asking that their identities not be disclosed.

State law allows people who may be identified in a public records release the opportunity to seek appropriate legal intervention on specific legal grounds.

Moloney didn’t name names. But the city released The Seattle Times’ records request immediately, meaning no one there objected.

That just left Hulten and Chambers as possible objectors.

The objections, Moloney told us, were based on the premise that state whistleblower statutes somehow came into play, or that the requesters’ names were exempt from disclosure under state law that protects witnesses in active police investigations or shields the identities of some crime victims.

Moloney also said he didn’t believe those exemptions applied.

Even so, he was told that lawyers were being consulted and the city could expect a court injunction to keep The Herald from examining the public records we sought. The lawyers never materialized. The records were turned over once the clock ran out for the objecting parties.

Can we link Hulten’s actions to the documents now being used in Reardon’s political campaign? Nope. Hulten repeatedly has insisted that he’s been digging on his own, that he’s not part of the Reardon campaign and that his actions are those of a private citizen who just happens to support the continued employment of the politician who hired him in January as a $59,000-a-year executive analyst. (His county job description can be found in the box at the right.)

We continue to ask Hulten to sit down and answer questions.

In particular we want to learn more about how he’s segregating his political activism from his publicly funded workplace, particularly when available evidence suggests some of his key actions to obtain the Hope records have occurred on work days and, in some instances, during normal business hours.

Hulten’s not the only Reardon staffer we’ve asked to shed light on where the line is drawn between working on the public dime and engaging in the boss’ re-election campaign.

Christopher Schwarzen, a former reporter for The Seattle Times who is paid public money to be the county executive’s spokesman, recently spent part of a Friday night and a Saturday sending us email from his county account.

He was demanding a correction in a story about a campaign debate between Reardon and Hope that morning, which he attended. Schwarzen, apparently convinced The Herald had botched a Reardon quote, suggested how we could edit the story online to meet his approval.

Schwarzen backed off when told that he was wrong: The Herald recorded the debate and was confident we’d quoted Reardon accurately.

We never did get an answer from Schwarzen when we asked that he explain whether he was acting in his official capacity when he demanded a correction in a campaign-related story involving Reardon.

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