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Updated Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 12:46 AM

Seattle police dug deep trying to uncover sources of news leaks

By Steve Miletich
Seattle Times staff reporter

The Seattle Police Department spent more than a year combing the records of 120,000 department phone calls to try to identify the source of a string of leaks to the news media, according to police officials.

In the end, the investigation conducted by the Criminal Intelligence Section uncovered at least two contacts with news media that triggered an internal inquiry. One was with a Seattle Times reporter; the other was with a news blogger who now works for the Police Department.

The findings of the investigation were forwarded to the department's Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which found the evidence inconclusive.

The department said it took the highly unusual step because the news leaks threatened to compromise the investigation into the killing of Seattle police Officer Timothy Brenton in October 2009; the search for the killer of four Lakewood police officers a month later; and a third case involving a search warrant.

While insisting the leak investigation was narrowly tailored to address sensitive disclosures, the department has yet to release documents in response to a public-records request by The Times and refused to say how many hours or dollars were spent looking into the leaks.

The investigation, along with a second leak probe last year, occurred while the department was under intense public scrutiny over its use of force, which culminated in an agreement with the Department of Justice this year to initiate far-reaching reforms.

Two veteran officers, who were not targets of the leak probe, revealed the intelligence investigation to The Times.

Police officials said they are not on a campaign to suppress scrutiny in the news media.

"We stayed very, very specific to the case, and those individuals that had involvement with the cases," said Assistant Chief Paul McDonagh, who heads the intelligence section. "And we reviewed city phone numbers and cellphones — city-owned — and reviewed those for possible contact."

McDonagh said he ordered the intelligence investigation in late 2009 or early 2010 in response to the Brenton and Lakewood leaks and later expanded it to include the search-warrant leak. The investigation concluded sometime in 2011, he said.

He described the leaks as disclosures of "some very sensitive criminal investigative information" that potentially could compromise an investigation and hinder the ability to obtain a conviction.

Leaks in Brenton case

McDonagh said information developed during the investigation ultimately was passed to the OPA for the internal inquiry to determine whether anyone should be disciplined for violating department rules. He declined to provide details because the OPA review remained ongoing at the time he was interviewed.

But a department official familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the OPA review was ultimately inconclusive.

The official said the referral to OPA was based on a review of more than 120,000 phone calls.

McDonagh cited a number of leaks that put at risk the investigation into the killing of Brenton, who was gunned down in his patrol car on Oct. 31, 2009.

McDonagh did not elaborate on the leaks, but said, "Every time information goes out, you have to anticipate that the suspect is not only accessing that information but then acting in an effort to thwart our attempts to apprehend them."

Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, chief spokesman for the department, noted that The Times learned of highly confidential information during the hunt for the assailant — that similar U.S.-flag items had been left at both the shooting scene and the earlier bombing of Seattle police vehicles, potentially linking the two crimes.

Such information, if kept confidential, can be used by detectives to identify a legitimate suspect or a witness who might be aware of certain information.

Several Times reporters worked on the story, including the author of this story.

At the request of a source, The Times did not publish information about the items until Christopher Monfort was arrested six days after the shooting. But Whitcomb said the disclosure could have damaged the investigation if the leaked information had been publicized.

A premature disclosure

Another leak, according to the department official familiar with the matter, was traced to Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, who operated a police-news website before he was hired in March as a contract blogger in the department's public-information office. That leak apparently involved the premature disclosure of a search warrant tied to an unrelated investigation that occurred sometime after the Brenton and Lakewood cases.

Once Spangenthal-Lee was hired, he was given the opportunity to provide information on the leak. But he declined and wasn't expected to reveal his source, Whitcomb said.

In the Lakewood case, McDonagh said the name of the suspect, Maurice Clemmons, had barely reached law enforcement on the day of the shootings, Nov. 29, 2009, when it was leaked to reporters.

Seattle police narrowly missed catching Clemmons hours after the officers were killed. Clemmons was fatally shot by a Seattle officer on Dec. 1, 2009.

"Oftentimes, law-enforcement officers know suspects, where they hang ... where they're doing their crimes, and they can go there and oftentimes we pick 'em up right away," McDonagh said. "And sometimes that gets compromised."

It was unclear whether investigators identified the source of any leak in the Lakewood case.

Law firm hired

With all the leaks, investigators went to great lengths to isolate calls involving particular department employees and avoid a fishing expedition, according to a city official briefed on the investigation.

The department also conducted a second, unrelated investigation last year. Police Chief John Diaz hired an outside law firm to examine a leak to KING5 regarding potential discipline of an officer who had threatened to beat the "Mexican piss" out of a prone Latino man. The inquiry, which cost $12,000, did not find the source of the leak.

McDonagh said the intelligence investigation he ordered did not stray into the case of the Latino man or leaks that called into question the fatal shooting by police of woodcarver John T. Williams in 2010.

He said the department has an obligation to protect confidential information for the benefit of victims and their families, as well as for officers involved in incidents and suspects who deserve to have the right person taken before the court.

"If someone's leaking information, they don't necessarily know what kind of ripple is going to occur," he said.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com


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