Probe finds no ethical violations by Lynnwood police

LYNNWOOD — An independent investigation of Lynnwood police has found that two members of the department didn’t violate the city’s ethics code in their email dealings earlier this year with the city’s traffic enforcement camera contractor.

Deputy Police Chief Karen Manser did, however, demonstrate “questionable judgment” and created “an appearance of a conflict that raised questions” when she asked the camera company about job prospects while at the same time starting to negotiate a new contract, the report says.

The report, which was four months in the making and may have cost up to $21,170, was released Wednesday by Lynnwood Mayor Don Gough.

The city in August hired Seattle lawyer Patricia Eakes to determine whether the police department had conflicts of interest in its working relationship with American Traffic Solutions Inc. The city contracts with the Arizona company for traffic enforcement cameras which bring in millions of dollars a year for the city in red-light and school-zone tickets.

The results of her findings were released under state public records laws.

Eakes found that neither Manser nor traffic unit Sgt. Wayne “Kawika” Davis violated city or police department policies and ethics codes. Furthermore, there was no evidence that police employees had control over the contract or attempted to influence it for personal gain, Eakes wrote.

Gough hired Eakes just days after The Herald reported about emails written by Manser and Davis that suggested a blurring between the camera company’s business and the police department.

Police Chief Steve Jensen at the time said he didn’t believe any legal or ethical lines were crossed, but he called the emails “not smart” and called for an outside look.

The emails in question showed Manser asking a camera company official about job prospects as she opened negotiations to renew the city’s multi-million dollar contract.

The emails also showed Davis offering to help the company market their cameras in other cities and states. He also offered to help lobby against proposed legislation that sought to minimize how much money cities could charge for traffic-camera violations. Police officials have acknowledged that the city is dependent on the money from the cameras.

In her report, Eakes noted Jensen’s assessment about the “lack of judgment” in Manser’s email.

Manser didn’t actually seek a job, which would have violated the city’s code, the lawyer wrote. But even raising the question, as she did, “demonstrated questionable judgment by creating an appearance of a conflict that raised questions about whether the contract extension negotiation was fair and unbiased,” Eakes added.

The lawyer interviewed ATS officials, who said they didn’t take Manser’s job query seriously.

Meanwhile, Davis in the emails asked ATS to sponsor a conference for a motorcycle officers trade group of which he is president. The company declined a similar offer in 2009.

When Davis asked again in 2011, he wrote ATS that he had ideas to market the company in Washington and surrounding areas, and that there was “a lot more business to be had.”

Davis told investigators that he was referring to business the company could have gained through sponsoring the conference and having a presence there.

Davis also serves in a police lobbying group and in the emails asked that group for support in opposing anti-camera legislation. He offered to put them in touch with an ATS lobbyist.

Davis told the outside investigator that he wanted to show the group how “the photo enforcement programs provided benefits” to police departments, the report says.

Davis kept his supervisors aware of his activities and had permission to participate in them, Eakes wrote. Management knew that he was working on “defeating negative photo enforcement legislation,” the report said.

Earlier this month, Manser sent Lynnwood’s human resources office a statement about the investigation. She asked that it be shared with City Council members. The document was released Wednesday along with the report.

Although Manser acknowledged that there may have been an appearance of a conflict of interest in her emails to the camera company, her intentions were misrepresented by The Herald and other media that picked up the story, “completely blowing it out of proportion.”

Manser wrote that her reputation had been damaged by the media attention. She also accused the mayor of seeking the independent investigation because she has complained about him in the past and had participated in an earlier city investigation focusing on his management and treatment of a female employee.

Gough released a statement about the traffic-camera email investigation late Wednesday. He wrote that police and other city officials deserved commendation for recognizing the necessity of an outside review.

“I am thankful that no violations were found in the investigation,” he wrote. “Using a truly independent investigator in these situations is the appropriate approach which, hopefully, will only be needed sparingly, if at all, in the future.”

The police chief was on vacation Wednesday and not immediately available for comment.

The total cost of the investigation was not available Wednesday. The City Council in mid-November authorized spending roughly $21,000. It also wasn’t immediately clear whether the report will affect the city’s upcoming contract renewal with American Traffic Solutions.

The contract originally was set to expire in November, but City Council members approved a three-month extension, which ends in February.

The city installed traffic-enforcement cameras in 2007, and the program has generated copious controversy — and revenue — ever since.

Lynnwood police for years insisted that the program was all about safety, but Jensen this summer conceded to The Herald that the city depends on the money the camera program generates. His comments came as he was being interviewed about the emails that became the focus of the independent investigation.

The police department’s own analysis of accident data has shown the cameras’ possible effect on reducing crashes is inconclusive. The camera company recently released a study showing reductions in speeding outside Lynnwood schools where enforcement cameras have been installed.

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