by Carolyn Bick
The Emerald’s Watchdragon reporting seeks to increase accountability within our city’s institutions through in-depth investigative journalism.
Despite the serious allegations contained within — including clear allegations of conflicts of interest — Seattle’s Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) has decided not to investigate the ethics complaint against the Office of Inspector General (OIG) filed in August of this year. And based on responses to community members at the Oct. 12 Community Police Commission (CPC) meeting, as well as an email the Emerald received the following day, neither the CPC nor the fairly new federal monitor, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, had been informed of this decision as of the Oct. 12 meeting — despite both the CPC’s and federal monitor’s oversight roles in the almost decade-old Consent Decree.
In addition to confirming that he had not heard about the SEEC’s decision until Oct. 13, Oftelie told the Emerald in an Oct. 13 email response that, even though he had not “researched” the complaint’s associated evidence (and it is unclear whether he has read the complaint itself), he felt the complaint was without merit. He said he based this opinion on “accounts relayed to me.” This would appear to undermine the messages of assurance he gave community members at the Oct. 12 CPC meeting.
Oftelie also seemed to suggest that the Emerald was only covering the ethics complaint for financial gain.
On Aug. 5, a former OIG auditor filed an ethics complaint with the SEEC, alleging, among other things, that both OIG Inspector General Lisa Judge and Deputy Inspector General Amy Tsai have worked to quash any professional pushback against the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), rendering OIG auditors little more than rubber stampers for OPA investigations, despite the office’s role of overseeing the OPA and certifying its investigations. The complaint alleges that this silencing is based in part on a friendship between Tsai and OPA Dir. Andrew Myerberg and that it is based on “appeasing the OPA.”
The ethics complaint also alleges retaliation against the former auditor, who said in the ethics complaint that they were “verbally reprimanded” for sending emails that could be construed as critical of the OPA. The former auditor specifically references a June 30, 2021, email and memo that they sent regarding the Director’s Certification Memo (DCM) for OPA case 2020OPA-0583. The case was about the Sept. 7, 2020, Labor Day protest in front of the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG). The former auditor’s memo was critical of the OPA’s DCM and the narrative it set forth.
“I was immediately contacted by the IG concerning this email. Via phone call, the IG accused me of sending the email only because I was upset with Myerberg’s statement to a reporter,” the auditor writes on page two of the ethics complaint. “I was then scolded for sending the email to all-staff (which was inaccurate) and again she told me I was never to write anything critical of OPA or the OPA Director. I was told my comments made her (the IG’s) job more difficult. I was then instructed only to provide ‘negative feedback’ concerning OPA via phone call or during staff meetings.”
But despite these detailed allegations of conflicts of interest and retaliation, the SEEC in a brief Aug. 26 email informed the former auditor that it would not be investigating the complaint.
In the email, SEEC Executive Dir. Wayne Barnett appears to reduce the auditor’s concerns to those of a disgruntled employee, opening the email with, “Thank you for reaching out to the Ethics and Elections Commission. I am sorry your time at the City was not at all what you’d hoped for or expected.
“In your complaint, you cite the ‘purpose’ section of the Ethics Code when lodging your complaints against the Inspector General and Deputy Inspector General. While the purpose section guides our interpretations of the Ethics Code, it is not, in and of itself, an enforceable section of the Seattle Municipal Code,” Barnett’s email continues. “The enforceable provisions of the Ethics Code are found in SMC 4.16.070, which broadly deals with (1) conflicts of interest, (2) misuse of position or City resources for private gain, and (3) gifts that could appear to be given with the intent to influence an official or employee’s performance of their duties. Without discounting any of your concerns with OIG’s leadership, I do not see a way in which these concerns raise issues for investigation under the Ethics Code.”
It is unclear why Barnett decided that none of the allegations within the complaint were “enforceable provisions,” given that almost all — if not all — of them appear to be rooted in a conflict of interest.
It is also unclear why neither the CPC nor Oftelie would have been informed of this decision. The CPC is one of the three organizations that, alongside the OIG and OPA, is supposed to provide police oversight for the Seattle Police Department (SPD), while Oftelie serves remotely as a federal monitor appointed by the courts to steer police reform in the City. Both offices were created under the federal Consent Decree, which was instituted in 2012 as a response to a United States Department of Justice investigation that found “a pattern or practice of constitutional violations regarding the use of force that result from structural problems, as well as serious concerns about biased policing.”
It should be noted that though the City was found in full compliance with the Consent Decree in 2018, just 16 months later, United States Federal Judge James L. Robart found the City — by way of SPD — out of compliance. The issue of noncompliance was again brought to the fore during 2020 in the ways police treated protesters (such as in this case) and just this past week, following a letter written and signed by one former OIG investigations supervisor and co-signed by another, regarding allegations against Myerberg himself. This letter also referenced the ethics complaint against the OIG.
But during the engagement portion of CPC’s Oct. 12 meeting, neither the members of the CPC nor Oftelie appeared to have been aware of the SEEC’s decision regarding the ethics complaint. One community member, Jennifer, referenced “an ethics complaint” in the course of her comment. Another named Amy said that “there is the whistleblower issue in the OIG right now.”
Still another community member, Jake, said that the complaint “detailed some serious allegations about how the Office of Inspector General is, in fact, not taking its job of supervising the OPA and doing systemic oversight serious, and is instead trying to, basically, cozy up with the OPA, protect the OPA, values personal relationships with the OPA more than the OIG.
“So, I guess, my question to the monitor would be: Are you aware of the complaint and are you aware of [the Emerald’s] reporting of that complaint?” Jake asked Oftelie. “What do you see the monitor’s role, in terms of being independent outside of the City? Because, right now, the City is investigating it — the City [is] investigating its own agency. Is there a way for the monitor to come in and actually get to the bottom of what is going on there?”
To this, Oftelie replied: “I am aware of it, the monitoring team is aware. We’ve been kind of, well, monitoring the situation. It’s not directly in our purview to look at that from a standpoint of — what we do as a monitoring team is advise the court on progress relative to the Consent Decree. … We are limited in what we can do for investigations in that matter. But, that being said, let me talk to the team and work with you to see what, if any, leverage we have to do more of a look under the hood.
“I know the court will likely be interested in this, of course — has expressed interest in it,” Oftelie continued.
Throughout all of this, neither Oftelie nor any members of the CPC suggested that they knew the SEEC had decided in late August not to investigate the ethics complaint. The CPC appeared reluctant to substantively address the ethics complaint, and different CPC members said that they were waiting on a “formal” outcome of a presumed active ethics investigation.
Additionally, before this, Amy, who referenced “the whistleblower complaint,” said that she had some questions regarding this recent Emerald story about the DCM for 2020OPA-0583, which, as mentioned above, the former auditor referenced in their ethics complaint.
“It kind of blew my mind,” the commenter said of the article and situation, before specifically quoting to Oftelie a section of the article that appears to show that the OPA both constructed what the commenter called “a fictional narrative” and refused to make a certain finding because under the Consent Decree, that finding would have barred SPD officers from policing demonstrations.
“I feel like that is very undermining of the basic purpose of the OPA’s existence and that it erodes community trust, because if we see something like this, then we have to dig into every single finding the OPA gives, knowing that perhaps it’s not accurate and it has some political reason behind it,” the commenter continued. “I guess my question is, as the federal monitor, what is your response to hearing that the Consent Decree is being used in this way to avoid accountability for SPD?”
Oftelie replied that he had not read that story: “I am going to probably have to get back to you. I have not read that article. I do know that, at a personal level, that particular incident was disgusting. The actions that took place at SPOG — and I’ve talked with [SPOG President] Mike Solan about that and just — what I do know is that the Sentinel Event Review process that OIG is running, they are looking — they are in a phase right now where they will be looking directly at that particular incident from a systemic standpoint to understand what went wrong, what happened, etcetera, and have findings.”
However, it is still unclear what this review will achieve, particularly if the allegations set forth in the ethics complaint are true.
Earlier in the meeting, Oftelie said in response to a different commenter that “one thing I don’t know is what happened at every level in the accountability system — SPD and OPA — and what happened at a disciplinary perspective.
“If there are cases, where they are stuck in the system, where OPA hasn’t put out a finding or we feel like there’s egregious errors that OPA had in that finding — I don’t know — it’s probably not directly under my purview to look at them, but we should probably all do that, right?” Oftelie said.
The Emerald has reached out to the CPC to ask whether, at the time community members were asking about the complaint and the status of a presumed investigation at the CPC’s Oct. 12 meeting, the commission was aware of the fact that the SEEC had decided not to investigate the complaint. The Emerald has likewise reached out to the SEEC to ask why the complaint was not investigated, given the clear allegations that would appear to fit into the conflict of interest category, and whether the SEEC informed the CPC of this decision at any point between when it made the decision not to investigate and the CPC’s Oct. 12 meeting.
The Emerald also reached out to Oftelie for comment, who confirmed that he only just heard about the SEEC’s decision on Oct. 13, the day the Emerald emailed him. He also admitted that he hadn’t “researched all the documents and information” regarding the complaint but nevertheless saw fit to say that “from all accounts relayed to me, this is an issue that while sounding salacious on its cover, really has no merit.
“From a functional perspective, we want the accountability organizations and their lead executives to grapple with tough cases and share ideas on how to make policing more equitable and accountable. For example, if there’s a case in which a police officer may have done something that led to a bad outcome, but didn’t warrant discipline, the City is best served when accountability executives pick up the phone and say ‘we really can’t discipline this officer as they didn’t break any policies, but how can we develop new policies so this never happens again…’,” Oftelie’s email continued. “That level of collaboration (and transparency) is vital to a functioning accountability ecosystem. Conversely, the last thing the City wants is accountability organizations that are constantly fighting, hiding information, and that don’t talk to each other.”
The Emerald would like to point out that those who read the ethics complaint may recall that it alleges that OIG auditors are told not to do their jobs.
“I realize it’s hard for some community members or past employees to accept that form of organizational dynamic” — apparently suggesting that the cause of the former auditor’s allegations and community concerns are rooted in that individual’s chafing against the organization structure of the City’s accountability system, rather than concerns over conflicts of interests and retaliation — “but I hope you and the South Seattle Emerald can paint the full picture for them. Seattle has one of the best accountability systems in the nation – and they are run by humans – people that are working tirelessly to keep police accountable,” Oftelie continued, apparently suggesting that the Emerald’s work is not fair or complete because it has not recently reported anything positive about the OIG, OPA, or CPC.
Oftelie closed with the suggestion that the Emerald’s motivation for covering the ethics complaint is financial:
“I realize that doesn’t sell papers and ad clicks, but I hope that progress can be lifted up for the Seattle community.”
The Emerald responded to ask why Oftelie felt he could deem the ethics complaint’s allegations without merit if he hasn’t thoroughly reviewed the evidentiary materials associated with them.
Oftelie replied to request that the Emerald send him the documents, despite the Emerald having included the original story reporting on the complaint, which contains the complaint itself (which, as readers will know, also contains evidentiary materials). The Emerald responded by sending Oftelie a direct link to the ethics complaint.
It is unclear why the Seattle Police Department’s federal monitor would not already be in possession of or at the very least have access to the documents and evidence related to the ethics complaint he has stated has “no merit,” nor why no one from the City would by now have shared these documents with him, though he was notified of the SEEC’s decision not to investigate the matter about a month-and-a-half after the fact.
At the time of this writing, it is also unclear whether the CPC or Oftelie and the monitoring team ever reached out to the SEEC to ask about the status of the ethics complaint. Oftelie himself never answered that question in his email to the Emerald, and both the CPC and SEEC have yet to respond.
On Oct. 15, the Emerald requested a video of the Oct. 12 meeting from the CPC. The CPC sent the video, but did not immediately answer any of the questions the Emerald originally sent on Oct. 13. In its email back to the CPC’s Oct. 15 response, the Emerald again invited the CPC to send along answers to these questions or provide comment.
The Emerald will update this story with any responses it receives.
Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. As the Emerald’s Watchdragon reporter, they dive deep into local issues to keep the public informed and ensure those in positions of power are held accountable for their actions. You can reach them here and can check out their work here and here.
📸 Featured Image: Screenshot – Antonio Oftelie speaks from his office on a virtual SCPC meeting on May 19, 2021.
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