|Richmond's Mum As Rec
August 7, 1998
WEST COUNTY TIMES
* OFFICIALS ARE REFUSING TO RELEASE PUBLIC DOCUMENTS, PROMPTING A LEGAL CHALLENGE
Friday, August 7, 1998
RICHMOND The city is clamping down on public records and official discussions that may shed light on possible financial misconduct in the beleaguered Recreation and Cultural Services Department.
The City Council has instructed city staff not to discuss the criminal investigation with the media or council members, and city officials also are refusing to release public documents, saying they are part of the criminal investigation. That stance has prompted a legal challenge from the San Francisco Chronicle.
"We're not trying to quash anybody's freedom of speech, but just simply giving the city direction not to answer any questions about the investigation," Vice Mayor John Marquez said Thursday.
It's the latest development in the ongoing investigation of financial misconduct that arose from the forced resignation of the department's manager, Brad Baxter. Allegations of widespread graft, including unpaid bills, kickbacks, nepotism and theft of city funds, particularly at the Richmond auditorium, came to light after Baxter left.
City officials say he was forced to resign for falsely claiming to have a master's degree on his job application. Baxter said he was ousted because he was trying to uncover financial improprieties in his department.
The Chronicle is suing the city for access to financial records, including contracts, deposit slips and receipts, relating to the operation of the Richmond auditorium from 1983 to 1998. The Times has made a formal request for similar documents, which the city said it is withholding pending the conclusion of the criminal investigation.
"If we allow access to the press now, we have to grant access to the witness and suspects as well," Assistant City Attorney Everett Jenkins said Thursday.
The Chronicle suit, filed in Contra Costa County Superior Court on Monday, argues that "there's no law suggesting that they cease (being public records) once the police department wants to review them."
"Not only is the position of the city of Richmond logically absurd, it does not comport with the law," the suit says.
The city has asked the newspaper to withdraw the suit, saying that the criminal investigation takes priority, Jenkins said. A hearing is set for Aug. 27.
"We feel very strongly that they should not be released," Jenkins said. "We feel very strongly that the case law supports our position."
The documents have been sequestered by police, said Lt. Doug Sieberling, who is overseeing the investigation. For three weeks, investigators have been interviewing past and present employees of the department and people who used the auditorium.
And this week the City Council authorized hiring certified fraud examiner Dale Stephens to review the documents and the department's financial and business practices.
Stephens is a forensic accounting specialist and an authority in the areas of fraud and white-collar crime, city officials said. He has more than 25 years experience as a senior special agent in the Internal Revenue Service criminal investigations division. His investigation is expected to take at least a month and will cost the city at least $5,000.
Meanwhile, the council in closed session voted this week that city officials don't have to answer any council or media questions about the allegations.
According to several people who attended the meeting, the council took the vote because several members had received heated complaints from several employees about a letter that appeared on Point Richmond Online, an Internet site.
The six-page letter was made up of about 71 questions that Councilman Tom Butt compiled after talking with Baxter and the public about the allegations. The letter, which includes the names of some 28 people, mostly city employees, was submitted to City Manager Isiah Turner on July 23 and 27.
It appeared on Point Richmond Online on July 31, but has since been removed. In its place is the following message:
"The council member's letter which appeared on this page on July 31 has been removed pending an official statement from the City of Richmond. The letter named names and consequently there was a possibility of innocent people's reputations being unfairly sullied. Point Richmond Online will gladly post an official statement from the city when received."
Marquez said he took exception to the letter naming several employees.
"In a criminal investigation, you don't go throwing out people's names," he said.
Butt said he put the letter on the Internet because he wasn't satisfied with the course of the investigation.
"In retrospect, it probably wasn't the smartest thing I ever did," he said.
During the decision to launch an investigation, city leaders argued heatedly over whether it should be internal or done independently.
The original plan was to do it in-house, but city officials eventually decided to involve the District Attorney's Office and Stephens.