Bikini-barista video disclosure deal would cost Everett $45K

EVERETT — It looks as if an Olympia man could get a check for $45,000 from the city of Everett, along with copies of police surveillance videos of bikini baristas behaving badly.

The Everett City Council on Wednesday is scheduled to consider a settlement that city attorneys negotiated with prolific public records requester Arthur West.

The deal would bring an end to litigation over West’s 2014 demand for the barista videos. It also would memorialize his offer to not publish any of them on the Internet unless they contain images of public officials engaged in misconduct.

“I’m very encouraged that the city and I could come to a reasonable arrangement that would guarantee that the public interest would be served while not publishing all of the videos online,” West said. “It was never my intention to publish the videos of the baristas online.”

The record also is clear that West has for months quietly been seeking a cash payout in the case. He retained an attorney last summer who repeatedly demanded $150,000 or more to make the controversy go away.

West sought surveillance videos that Everett police and the FBI gathered as they investigated public corruption and prostitution at sexpresso stands in Snohomish County.

The city agreed the 5.3 terabytes of video were subject to disclosure under the state’s open records law. It offered West viewing access. However, officials resisted his demand for copies. They said surveillance videos showing baristas stripping and engaging in sexual conduct with each other and customers amounted to “nonconsensual pornography.” Releasing the videos would violate privacy rights, particularly if they wound up online, the city argued.

Superior Court Judge George Appel in December ruled the city’s “inspect-but-don’t copy” position violated the Public Records Act.

West said the litigation was appropriate because the city’s had created what he called a “peek-a-boo” exemption to disclosure. City officials may have taken that stance in good faith, but they still deprived him legal access to records that contain evidence of official misconduct, he said last week.

Investigators have never maintained otherwise.

Darrell O’Neill, a former Snohomish County sheriff’s sergeant, was sentenced to a year in jail last week for the felony of conspiring to engage in laundering money connected to the sexpresso business. He only began admitting the scope of his illegal conduct when confronted by video evidence showing him in uniform in intimate embrace with coffee hut workers, records show.

The investigation found the stands were multimillion-dollar operations that mixed selling coffee drinks with customers paying baristas for sexually explicit conduct, primarily flashing private parts but also exchanging sex for money.

The state Public Records Act allows a judge to impose penalties for each day a government illegally withholds records. Assistant city attorney Ramsey Ramerman said settling with West now makes sense given the court’s ruling.

“The benefits to the city are quickly diminishing if we try to litigate over the settlement amount,” Ramerman said.

That doesn’t mean the settlement was reached without pushing back and forth.

West, who is not an attorney, represented himself in the courtroom to argue the public records aspects of the case. He also retained Olympia attorney Jon Cushman to press the city for a cash award, according to emails The Daily Herald obtained under a public records request.

“This case should settle,” Cushman wrote Ramerman in August. “A media feeding frenzy is about to occur.”

The city’s response: It could handle any frenzy that arose and the legal questions were real.

Cushman demanded $175,000 and complained when his message went unanswered. He renewed the $150,000 demand in December after the court ruled against Everett.

Ramerman told West’s attorney that amount was “a conversation killer,” and the city instead asked the judge to revisit the ruling.

Appel stood firm, however, and negotiations commenced.

West in August told The Daily Herald he wasn’t trying to force a cash award from the city and that resolving the public access questions raised by the case were his primary attraction.

“The public interest is served by having rewards for people who have the time and the skill to spend years if necessary in court to uphold the people’s right to know,” he said last week.

Scott North: 425-339-3431; north@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snorthnews.

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