Judge Guy Meets Cherie Rodgers

A Journalistic Gem

Thirteen years ago, Larry Shook put himself in the right place at the right time to put a human face on Spokane’s most revealing political story.

There’s no easy way to set the context for Judge Guy Meets Cherie Rodgers, the artful and deeply revealing story that my reporting colleague, Larry Shook, wrote in early September of 2001 for our national award-winning Camas Magazine project. I don’t know of another single story that better exposes Spokane’s political bedrock, and so clearly frames the long struggle to transform the city from a cozily corrupt company town into something less cynical and more democratic. (Certainly a fuller treatment of this tale, going back more than a century, is available in Bill Stimson’s political history of Spokane: Insiders and Naysayers.) You can also listen to a short interview with Larry and Cherie recorded on September 11, 2014.

When Larry wrote this gem of a piece, Spokane was well into the second year of a sulfurous crisis that had splintered the city’s political class into three factions.

•The first was centered upon Stacey and Betsy Cowles, the heirs to the Cowles Publishing Company, and the family’s extensive communications and commercial property businesses. The Cowleses publish the Spokesman-Review newspaper and, among other things, own KHQ-TV, the city’s NBC affiliate. But, more importantly, the family owns River Park Square, an upscale shopping mall in the heart of downtown. When the Cowleses moved to expand and renovate River Park Square in the mid-1990s they applied extreme pressure on City Hall to inject tens of millions of dollars in hidden subsidies—much of it through an expanded and vastly overvalued parking garage. The Cowles faction, circa 2001, included city council members Rob Higgins, Roberta Greene and Phyllis Holmes.

•The second faction consisted of those who’d vehemently opposed the hidden (and in the IRS’s view, illegal) subsidies built into the River Park Square public/private partnership. In 2001 the secret deal was imploding and a securities fraud suit had been filed by investors who’d bought revenue bonds in the financially sinking River Park Square parking garage. The rebels were demanding a full investigation into criminal wrongdoing. This faction included Spokane’s most popular and trusted politicians—Cherie Rodgers—who’d been appointed to fill a vacancy on the city council in 1998, and was eventually re-elected to serve two additional terms.

•The third faction was led by new mayor John Powers, the first to serve under Spokane’s then-new “strong mayor” form of government. Powers had won a close election against rebel incumbent John Talbott the year before by promising to pursue an out-of-court “business solution” that would require the family to cover the city’s losses and legal exposure to suing bondholders. One of Powers’s early moves as mayor was to remove the city’s special counsel for RPS, Seattle lawyer, O. Yale Lewis, and replace him with a local attorney, Laurel Siddoway. Siddoway then filed an amended complaint offered an olive branch, of sorts, to developer Betsy Cowles by removing conspiracy allegations that Lewis had included in the City’s first two complaints.

Into this political, civic and legal tempest strode the tall, patrician Richard Guy, a Spokane native, recently retired as the chief justice of the Washington supreme court. Mayor Powers had enlisted the judge as a mediator to work out the deal he had promised Spokane voters he would pursue.

Cherie Rodgers and Judge Richard Guy
Cherie Rodgers & Judge Richard Guy

As Larry recounts in his story, Cherie Rodgers refused to meet withJudge Guy within the cone of confidentiality available under the state’s mediation law. So this meeting was on-the-record with only one journalist present, and that was Larry Shook. Larry didn’t bring a tape recorder and, indeed, it is hard to imagine that Judge Guy would have spoken as candidly had he known he was being electronically recorded. So the article is written from Larry’s handwritten notes of the session.

In many ways, Larry’s extraordinary story reminds me of John McPhee’s classic 1969 sports story, Levels of the Game, which reports on a U.S. Open tennis match between the Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner in 1968. McPhee not only tells the story of the match (Ashe won) but of the two disparate worlds that produced the two, 25-year-old opponents.

And that’s also the richness of Judge Guy Meets Cherie Rodgers. Rodgers, who is part Blackfeet Indian and grew up on the Flathead Reservation in Montana, greets Judge Guy with her signature warmth and a smile. But she’s also remarkably well-prepared and fortified with a very clear view of the accountability she expects on behalf of Spokane voters. The judge, on the other hand, knows only what he has read in the paper, and despite his deep roots in Spokane, he ends up admitting to Rodgers that he’s also repulsed by the city’s company town culture and attitudes. If this were a tennis match, Rodgers would have won in straight sets.

As I think most of us remember, Judge Guy’s mediation effort didn’t succeed. John Powers’s effort to woo Betsy Cowles into an out-of-court settlement failed miserably, and the River Park Square litigation rolled on in federal court for several more years. Powers’s popularity plummeted so badly that he lost a 2003 primary election, coming in last among three candidates. In the spring of 2004, with a federal trial looming, the City announced it had settled the securities fraud claims brought against the City and Cowles companies for $30 million. It then turned to negotiate directly with Cowles agents and other parties named in the lawsuit, and that didn’t end so well either. The City was still left shouldering nearly all the debt needed to pay-off investors who’d bought revenue bonds in the badly failing parking garage. 

 Then city councilman Al French, an early supporter of the River Park Square public private partnership, was clearly distraught when he spoke to the public at December 2004 special meeting. As the council prepared to vote to approve the final agreement with the Cowles family, French said this: “Quite frankly, I think I’ve failed you. This is not a fair deal. This is not an equitable deal. But it’s probably the best deal we’re going to get.”

French’s mea culpa was no doubt sincere. But it was also a smart politician’s response to public outrage over the injustice of the River Park Square settlement and the lack of accountability for those who’d perpetrated the fraud that cost the City so dearly. There’s a lot going on between Judge Guy and Cherie Rodgers in the meeting Larry describes, but it is her push against injustice that finally drives the esteemed jurist into a corner of candor, and regret. It’s Larry’s skill in capturing these moments that give this story its timeless quality.

–Tim Connor

Judge Guy Meets Cherie Rodgers

“You’re not going away, are you?”

By Larry Shook (published Oct. 5, 2001)

On August 31, at eight in the morning, former state supreme court chief justice Richard Guy arrived at the mayor’s conference room on the fifth floor of city hall. Tall and patrician, Guy seemed fresh from the shower and his morning shave. Waiting for the judge, smiling pleasantly, was city councilwoman Cherie Rodgers.

Mayor John Powers had asked Guy to help persuade the city council to enter into mediation to end the River Park Square crisis. Rodgers was the last council person with whom the retired judge met. Steve Eugster, who disdains Powers’s management of the crisis, refused to meet with Guy at all or even return his phone calls. With the exception of Rodgers, all the other council members acceded to the mayor’s request and met with Guy behind closed doors. Rodgers said she would meet with the judge only in a public session. That’s how I happened to be there. Only the three of us were in the room.

On the whiteboard, in stanzas, someone had written:

“The decision is made based upon sound business reasons.

“Stay the course, a community-wide call for mediation.

“Goal: Comprehensive, Equitable, Long lasting resolution that will heal our community and move us forward.”

Cherie Rodgers had little cairns of documents spread on the table before her.

Cherie Rodgers testifying before the city council in 2008,
Cherie Rodgers testifying before the city council in 2008,

Rodgers, who is part Blackfeet Indian, grew up on the Flathead Reservation in Hot Springs, Montana, where her father was a high school teacher. She told the judge about the annual field trip where the civics class was taken to the Deer Lodge Penitentiary. There they encountered people from the rez who were imprisoned for writing $30 bad checks.

Outside, it was a cloudless summer day, pure in its blue perfection. Avista had the river turned off, so that it trickled and pooled in its ancient gorge. Restaurateurs prepared for the annual “Pig Out” celebration in Riverfront Park. Radio stations set up flamboyant broadcast trailers with giant speakers. The sculpted iron Bloomsday runners loped nearby, frozen in their permanent celebration.

The judge approached the councilwoman like a shy boy at a dance. He seemed twice her height. He didn’t want to come right out and ask her what he had come to ask her, and so he made small talk. He said he would always consider Spokane his hometown. He talked about his world travels. His voice did not rumble, as one might expect coming from a such a big and prominent man. It was reticent, soft, kind.

Rodgers compared travel notes with the judge. They had visited some of the same cathedrals in Florence, some of the same ancient sites in Turkey. Rodgers’s husband Stephen, major, U.S. Army (deceased), had been a career soldier, an Airborne Ranger. Rodgers said she and Stephen shared a passion for history.

Judge Richard Guy
Judge Richard Guy

The judge cleared his throat and gently brought up the subject of mediating the bitter garage dispute. From one of her document piles Rodgers took a copy of Tim Connor’s book, Secret Deal, and handed it to the judge. She asked him if he had read it. He hadn’t. She asked how much he knew about the garage controversy. Only what he read in the Cowles’s newspaper, said the judge. Rodgers registered mild surprise. She handed the judge a recent property assessments of the garage.

“I’d like to know how much they put in,” said Rodgers, referring to the Cowleses’ investment.

The judge answered that he was trying to get the mayor to distribute a Cowles earnings statement, which showed that the family had invested $20 million.

“It’s not true,” Rodgers cut him off. She said building permit fees did not support that claim.

The judge leafed through Secret Deal, yellow highlighting flashing as he turned the pages. “It seems very thorough,” he said.

“That’s your copy,” Rodgers told him. “I’ve marked some places for you.”

“Where do you get this stuff?” asked Guy, looking over the parking meter material. “Digging around,” said Rodgers.

A dance-or maybe a kind of contrapuntal narrative-of some two-and-a-half hours had begun. Two things were instantly clear. First, Rodgers has an encyclopedic grasp of reams of fine print that were never meant for public display. Second, she had come to have a far more detailed discussion of the story of River Park Square than had the distinguished visitor.

Guy said that he had recently spoken with Gary Ceriani, the cd-souvenirb-300x296Denver-based attorney representing institutional bondholders in one of the securities fraud suits brought against just about everybody connected with the River Park Square project, the City of Spokane included.

“He is very competent,” Guy said of Ceriani. “I think he is an ally for the city.” Guy said he had also spoken to the Minneapolis attorney representing a second group of bondholders in the securities fraud action. He said both of those attorneys wanted mediation.

“Will you mediate?” Guy asked Rodgers.

“I have some concerns,” Rodgers answered. “I want discovery. I want a valid assessment.”

The judge emphasized how debilitating the garage controversy had become for the community, and he questioned the value of discovery in laying the matter to rest.

Rodgers politely disagreed. She said River Park Square had done serious damage to Spokane’s ability to trust city government. She said the community’s only hope of repairing that damage was to face the truth about it, fairly allocate responsibility, and then move on.

She said she thought Mayor Powers and his special legal advisor, Laurel Siddoway, were being insincere in their handling of the matter. The evidence suggested, said Rodgers, that River Park Square was the product of a civil conspiracy to illegally use public money. In her view, the crisis of the garage was caused by corruption that was deeply imbedded in Spokane’s body politic. She compared that corruption to cancer. She wanted that cancer identified and removed. She didn’t think Powers and Siddoway had the political courage to prescribe such treatment. She was especially critical of them for “gutting” the lawsuit brought against developer Betsy Cowles by former mayor John Talbott and his special counsel, an outsider, Seattle attorney O. Yale Lewis. Rodgers reminded the judge that Powers and Siddoway dropped the civil conspiracy charge. Rodgers told Guy that when she asked Laurel Siddoway why, Siddoway replied simply: “politics.”

Guy changed the subject. He said that he and city councilman Steve Corker had discussed creating a protocol to prevent the mistakes of River Park Square from being made in future public/private partnerships in Spokane.

Rodgers wasn’t interested. Without a frank accounting of the past, she considers discussions of the future pointless.

She told the judge that she was troubled, shortly after being sworn to office, to discover “two sets of books” chronicling the River Park Square deal. She told him how reports by the Coopers and Lybrand accounting firm and business professors at Gonzaga University had been sanitized for public consumption. She told him how when she asked Pete Fortin, then the city’s finance director, why that had been done, Fortin said, “That’s what Betsy wanted.”

She was plainly concerned about what “Betsy wanted.” For instance, in Rodgers’s files, she said, was a September 19, 1997 memo from community development director Mike Adolfae outlining how Cowles, her attorney Duane Swinton, and her project manager Bob Robideaux had met with Coopers and Lybrand accountants and city staff and successfully argued to remove from public view details of the project that the accountants thought should be public. Rodgers was worried that the city could have been made a party to fraud against the IRS, the bondholders, and the citizens of Spokane by that acquiescence. She wanted to review that with the judge.

She told the judge that Adolfae had informed her that Betsy Cowles discussed the sensitive Coopers and Lybrand report with city council members three-at-a-time in order to avoid a quorum. She told Guy that she was deeply troubled that public money had been used while the developer and elected officials went to such lengths to keep the public in the dark.

Mayor Powers kept saying he wanted a “business solution.” Rodgers didn’t think that was the appropriate remedy for a problem caused by chicanery and sloppy work at best, possibly outright lawlessness at worst.

Guy changed the subject. He said there were two ways to look at River Park Square. It could be seen on its own business merits, or as an investment in revitalizing downtown…

Rodgers cut him off.

“That’s how they got away with this,” she said. “It was a scam. The developer didn’t do this for the city.” She opened the Walker report and slid it in front of the judge. She pointed out how the costs of expanding the garage went from $9,000 per stall to $32,000 per stall. She told him that the market average for such construction projects was “ten or eleven thousand dollars per stall.”

The judge frowned. “Let’s move on,” he said.

But Rodgers wanted to elaborate on why she didn’t accept the argument that the Cowleses had acted with the city’s interest in mind. She wanted to talk about the controversial “investment” appraisal that dramatically inflated the amount of public money that went into the Cowles development. She wanted Judge Guy to know that after selling more than $31 million of tax-exempt bonds to finance a garage which they said was worth $26 million, the Cowleses quietly asked the city to reduce the valuation of the garage to $14.5 million. They wanted a rebate on their building permit fees, adjusted to the lower figures. She showed the judge the October 8, 1998 memo from building inspector Bob Eugene noting that the city did as the Cowleses asked.

“Regarding River Park Square valuation and fees paid,” began the RPS back 500Eugene memo. “Further review of estimated valuation of the River Park Square project… reveals that certain errors were made in establishing the valuation. The value for the parking garage should be reduced from $26,050,713.71 to $14,527,271.28. Incorrect factors were used in establishing the combination of new construction and repair, with a significant overestimation of the repair. Construction estimates provided to this office prepared by the developer sustain the revised estimate. Contact with the prime contractor validated the [revised] estimate provided by the developer.”

It was an awkward letter with an awkward date. The bond sale to finance the garage officially closed on September 24, 1998. Yet within two weeks, the Cowleses had persuaded the city that the garage be valued not at $26 million, but at $14.5 million. The city bought the argument and refunded the Cowleses $63,000 in building permit fees. If there was some mistake on the value of the garage, Cowles had a year to correct the record before accepting $26 million and transferring the garage to the Parking Public Development Authority. The point is, Spokane’s general fund-the account from which police, fire and other basic services are paid-was ultimately obligated to support the debts, rents and expenses of a $26 million garage, not a $14.5 million garage.

The judge frowned again. Rodgers continued.

She had a decade’s worth of parking meter revenue data she wanted to go over with him. It looked to her, she said, as if the Cowleses had a long-standing plan to drive up revenues from downtown parking, and then to divert those revenues from the city’s general fund into downtown development. Prominent among the beneficiaries of such a scheme would be the Cowles family, which owns downtown’s most valuable property. Rodgers cited a Spokesman-Review article reporting that S-R publisher Stacey Cowles, who helped form the downtown Business Improvement District, lobbied in the mid-’90s for downtown parking to be bumped up from thirty-five cents an hour to seventy-five cents an hour. She noted that one version of River Park Square financing called for using parking meter revenues directly to pay off the bonds. The councilwoman told the judge that even though Betsy Cowles had promised the public that using the city’s parking meter money to bail out the garage was highly unlikely, Rodgers suspected that that had been the plan all along. The Comprehensive Parking Plan now being advocated by Cowles diverts parking revenues to downtown, and that reinforces Rodgers’s suspicion.

“Where do you get this stuff?” asked Guy, looking over the parking meter material.

“Digging around,” said Rodgers.

She said she considered it imperative for the public be given far more River Park Square information than it presently had. Mediation without such disclosure, she said, was inappropriate.

“Let’s say you get the facts…” began the judge.

“I want more discovery,” Rodgers cut him off.

“Why?” asked the judge.

“To make it fair,” she answered. “I don’t want the city to pay more than its fair share.”

She reeled off additional concerns. There was the matter of bond insurance, for instance. She said former city bond counsel Roy Koegen had assured the city council that the Cowles family would pay for the insurance to cover the garage’s bonds. In the end, that didn’t happen, Rodgers said, because, as Koegen explained to her, “Betsy didn’t want to pay the $750,000.”

She wanted to talk about the relationship between River Park Square manager Bob Robideaux and the Walker Parking consultants. “I think Robideaux is key,” she said. “I think he fed Walker numbers.”

There was the matter of property tax income the project was supposed to earn for the city. That was part of the justification for the public subsidy. But just before River Park Square opened, the PDA asked that the garage be given a tax exemption because it was a public project. That seemed like doubletalk to Rodgers.

“Will you mediate?” Guy asked Rodgers. “I have some concerns,” Rodgers answered. “I want discovery. I want a valid assessment.”

Rodgers had requested copies of legal bills from Preston Gates and Ellis, counsel to the Spokane Downtown Foundation and bond purchasers, to gain insight into work that might have been going on behind the scenes. Those bills contained references to phone conversations. The 7/9/99 entry leaped out at her. It indicated that foundation attorney Mike Ormsby had worked an hour-and-a-half to “Review and revise letter and material seeking tax exemption for property taxes; telephone conference with attorneys for developer.” It made her wonder what was going on.

And then there was the bond underwriter, Prudential Securities. Prudential’s role was to be the bondholders’ gatekeeper. Prudential was supposed to screen the deal to make sure that is was honestly represented to the bondholders, to guarantee that every investment risk was fully disclosed. Various documents made her wonder if Prudential had been candid. Take just one: Mike Ormsby’s 8/6/99 phone conversation. It showed almost an hour spent in a “Telephone conference with [Prudential executives] J. Moore, A. Face and M. Ormsby regarding AMC and parking validation issues.”

Those issues were so serious that they jeopardized the entire project that the $31 million bond sale had financed. (See “Under the Influence.”) Anchor tenant AMC balked at high parking rates for customers. It was a crisis that imperiled nearly half of the garage’s projected revenue. It never got resolved, and it occurred more than a month before the $26 million in bond proceeds had been turned over to Betsy Cowles.

His voice more emphatic than before, Judge Guy cut Rodgers off. “That’s why I think a deal can be struck,” he said. “People have liability.”

“Yes, but don’t you want all the facts?” Rodgers countered. “Look at the pre-construction statements-$40 million-that’s in direct conflict with the bond statement…”

Guy stopped her again. He compared the potential of mediating the garage dispute to something he heard President Clinton say about vision. “Vision will bring the details together…”

Rodgers had her own vision of Cowles actions. “They really wanted a private/private partnership,” she said.

“There’s a downside to every business deal,” said the judge.

Rodgers worried that the downside to River Park Square was a bottomless pit. “Look at the state’s revenue figures [for the core retail district]… The Cowleses figures are wrong. It’s [current revenue] below 1999. They wanted the city to spend $60,000 to market to Wenatchee and that area. We’re broke.”

“The real question is, how do you get out?” said the judge.

“Deposition. Discovery,” said Rodgers.

“You already know everything,” said the judge.

“No,” said Rodgers. “I don’t.”

“Yeah, but the developer knows,” said the judge, apparently implying that the developer had an incentive to mediate rather than have embarrassing facts revealed.

Rodgers told the judge about a group of prominent, wealthy, conservative downtown property owners who regularly met quietly with her. She called them the “Republican Republicans.” At first they took her to lunch at the Spokane Club. After a time they got nervous and shifted their meetings to out-of-the-way restaurants where they were less likely to be spotted.

The Republican Republicans, said Rodgers, “are very upset with Betsy. The Republican Republicans’ worst fear is raising downtown parking meter rates. That’s what Betsy wants to do. They won’t take on the Cowleses publicly. They say that’s professional death. They say the Cowleses will be at death’s door before they let you look at their books. Discovery will let you look at their books. The Cowleses have sued me. I’m going to look at their books. The city is going to have to put money into the River Park Square settlement, but I won’t know how much money is fair until I see Cowles books.

“I think Nordstrom is very mad at the Cowleses for sharing the Nordstrom lease. It shows that the Cowleses are subsidizing Nordstrom parking.”

Judge Guy seemed suddenly weary.

Rodgers asked Guy if he knew that Laurel Siddoway had consulted with AMC during the validation flap.

“I told [city attorney] Mike Connelly that and he said, ‘No problem.’ But the bondholders thought there was arm’s length,” said Rodgers.

Guy rolled his eyes. “Some of the things you’re saying could damage the city,” he said.

“Yes,” said Rodgers.

“If the city was part of the fraud, the city is liable for everything,” said Guy.

“No,” said Rodgers. She returned to the history of the Walker parking estimates. She said the evidence suggested to her that the developer may well have deceived the city about how much parking revenue to expect, and she wanted to get to the bottom of that.

“How the hell do you get out so that it benefits the city?” Guy asked her.

“Accountability. Integrity,” she answered.City hall 1

Rodgers, who is part Blackfeet Indian, grew up on the Flathead Reservation in Hot Springs, Montana, where her father was a high school teacher. She told the judge about the annual field trip where the civics class was taken to the Deer Lodge Penitentiary. There they encountered people from the rez who were imprisoned for writing $30 bad checks.

The judge read to her from a prepared statement about the mediation efforts that said that the River Park Square mess had to be resolved fairly.

“Absolutely,” said Rodgers. “But if you’re going to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk.” Mayor Powers, she said, wasn’t doing that, because he had let his friends walk free.

Judge Guy looked at Rodgers questioningly.

Foundation attorney Mike Ormsby had been treasurer for Powers’s mayoral campaign, Rodgers explained. Foundation director David Broom was a former Powers law partner at the Paine Hamblen firm. The Spokane Downtown Foundation, along with Ormsby’s employer, the Preston Gates and Ellis law firm, clearly had some explaining to do, she said. How could they have signed off on a bond deal that seemed to involve such spectacular revenue misrepresentations? How could such supposedly sophisticated professionals have done a project that opened its doors and headed straight for bankruptcy, creating a financial catastrophe for an entire city?

And yet the Powers administration dropped the mayor’s associates as defendants in the city’s legal proceedings. How do such things happen? Rodgers wondered aloud.

Rodgers looked at the judge.

“Does the foundation have any assets?” asked Guy.

“No, but it has names on its books,” answered Rodgers.

“But in Spokane, connections are everywhere,” said the judge. “I have a friend who says there are only 500 people in Spokane, because she sees them at every party.”

“You have to tell the truth,” said Rodgers. “If this were a RICO [federal Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organization] investigation, you’d go after these people. This is public money.”

Guy acknowledged that the involvement of public funds amplified the problem’s seriousness.

“The Cowles family is very concerned to preserve the integrity of the HUD loan,” said the judge.

“They should be,” said Rodgers. “HUD hasn’t signed off on that job count yet.” She was referring to employment quotas which must be met in order to satisfy the lending criteria behind the Cowles family’s use of $22 million of federal funds earmarked for low income people.

Judge Guy seemed genuinely perplexed by the sheer magnitude of River Park Square irregularities.

“Somebody said the other day, ‘We don’t even know the garage expenses…’ ” he said.

“Yes, but they’re knowable,” Rodgers interrupted. “Laurel could get them from discovery. Their [the Cowleses’s] worst fear is being deposed…”

“You have a public/private partnership,” the judge enjoined her. “You’re entitled to those numbers. I was surprised you don’t have them. I’d say, ‘Let’s get them.’ ”

“We have all the risk on that garage,” said Rodgers. “That isn’t a public garage. That’s the beauty of what Nordstrom did. If we don’t maintain that garage as Nordstrom requires, their rent drops. Look at Nordstrom’s sales figures right now. They’re off.”

Guy wanted to check her. Obviously there were problems. Litanous recitation wouldn’t fix them. “How much are you willing to spend on lawyers fees?” the judge asked her.

“Well, I’m looking at the city losing $3 million a year [on the garage] for 20 years,” was her rebuttal. “The PDA can’t pay the city the loans we’ve already made…”

“This brings me back to my thesis,” said the judge. “I think you can get out for the real value of the garage and the ground lease.”

Rodgers’s political future is very much in question in the upcoming election because of her River Park Square stance. The Spokesman-Review has endorsed her opponent, ex-city councilman Jeff Colliton. Colliton was part of the city council that approved the RPS deal, and he remains a staunch supporter of it. Rodgers, opined the Spokesman-Review, isn’t a good problem solver.

It must have been around nine o’clock at this point. I didn’t want to look at my watch or the clock on the wall and call attention to myself. I was trying to be invisible, trying to get everything down while observing expressions and body language as discreetly as possible. I eventually took 13 pages of legal pad notes, and this part of the conversation occurs at the bottom of page four.

From here, the discussion volleyed irreconcilably on and on. It was obvious by now that the perspectives of Guy and Rodgers occupied parallel tracks that would disappear into infinity and never meet. Guy wanted to help the mayor get a deal that would “heal” Spokane. Rodgers, I knew from previous conversations, felt that River Park Square was really about the elephant in Spokane’s living room-the political and economic influence of the Cowles family and its media. After three years of research, Rodgers was suspicious that River Park Square rested on a foundation of broken laws. She was convinced that it rested on intentional deceptions and violations of public trust. Mayor Powers kept saying he wanted a “business solution.” Rodgers didn’t think that was the appropriate remedy for a problem caused by chicanery and sloppy work at best, possibly outright lawlessness at worst.

Rodgers had also told me that she was worried that the RPS abuses might also infect the $100 million Convention Center expansion plans now before the city council, a project that would equal River Park Square times three. She fears that a repeat of the present fiasco could easily tumble the city into bankruptcy. Rodgers considers it monumentally bad judgment that Spokane taxpayers have been forced to gamble the city’s solvency on consumer spending at a private shopping center. She doesn’t want to up the ante by making a bad bet on a Convention Center project that could make matters worse.

Before the meeting ended, there were other exchanges.

Rodgers: “Betsy’s playing a game of chicken with the mayor. She knows what [Cowles real estate companies] did. But it was Powers’s friends who helped her do it. They were all afraid to say the emperor has no clothes.”

Guy: “I know you want a pound of flesh.”

Rodgers: “I’m looking at taxpayer money. It’s not a pound of flesh.”

Guy: “The bond attorney [Gary Ceriani of Denver] can solve the city’s problem. You can strike a deal because people have money exposure. But people won’t admit guilt. If that’s what you want, you won’t get it.”

Rodgers: “All right, then don’t do more public/private partnerships. This is public money.”

Guy: “Yes, people go to jail… How do you expose this in a meaningful way that doesn’t cost the city? You want people made accountable. But how does that solve the problem?”

Rodgers: “You have to have accountability. Lawyers are frustrating. They tell me, ‘Don’t tell me what hurts my case.’ ”

Guy: “But you expose the city. If you could expose everything, would that give the public more or less trust?”

Rodgers: “More trust. That’s the only thing that’ll do it. We spent $9 million on the Lincoln Street Bridge and didn’t pour a drop of concrete. They [the city] should be exposed. City staff told me: ‘We drew a line in the sand.’ Mike Adolfae [community affairs director] and [former assistant city attorney] Stan Schwartz told me that. They said, ‘Betsy went over our heads to the politicians in the back rooms.’ The Pierce report couldn’t believe the high cynicism in Spokane. That’s what this is about.”

Finally, Guy seemed to agree with Rodgers. “This is my hometown,” he said. “I’m not going to live here. I’ve always considered this a company town, like a coal-mining town.”

Rodgers: “Spokane has cancer. We can do something about it, or we will die.”

Guy: “You’re not going away, are you? Whether you lose the election or not?”

Rodgers: “I’m not going away. The Cowles have sued me. I may lose my house, but I’m not going away. My house could burn down, and I wouldn’t shed a tear.”

Guy: “I got to admit, I’m trying to mediate. If you put stuff in the open, the other side knows what you did. I was shocked by the permit letter [refunding building permit fees to the Cowleses]. Do you feel the city attorney is pursuing what he should be pursuing?”

Rodgers: “No.”

Guy: “That’s one reason you would want to settle.”

Rodgers: “No. I want the truth.”

With that, Judge Guy’s conversation with Rodgers came to a close. He told her he had found it most informative. Rodgers and I had coffee afterward. She said she found Judge Guy a genuinely likable and sincere man.

Finally, the retired judge seemed to agree with Rodgers. “This is my hometown,” he said. “I’m not going to live here. I’ve always considered this a company town, like a coal-mining town.”

Cherie Rodgers knows that seeking the truth may harm her politically. She knows, for instance, that when former mayor John Talbott asked HUD officials to carefully review the loan they were about to make to the Cowles family, he was attacked by Spokesman-Review editor Chris Peck for being a “civic terrorist.” Talbott’s terrorist act was to worry that the loan might have serious problems. Never mind that Talbott was right and that the HUD loan now is headed for default in 2004.

And Rodgers remembers well what happened when some nameless source leaked a memo to The Wall Street Journal from city attorneys Jim Sloane and Stan Schwartz. The memo warned that the Nordstrom lease contained provisions that posed worrisome risks to the City of Spokane. The Spokesman-Review ran a story under the headline: “Culprit Sought In Leak of Lease.”

The Cowles family wanted the Nordstrom lease kept secret. Never mind that the city’s own legal department worried about the terms of that lease. Never mind that the city’s own bond counsel, Roy Koegen, says he argued that the lease should never have been confidential. Never mind that the courts eventually ruled the lease a public document. To Cowles headline writers, leaking that memo was a villainous act. Little wonder they saw it that way. The leaker of that memo identified himself to me in March 2001 while I was reporting “All In The Family.” He told me that he gave the Sloane/Schwartz memo to The Wall Street Journal because he had given it to a Spokesman-Review reporter five months before, and he concluded that the Cowles paper intended to cover it up. That appears to be what happened.

Under the terms of the leak, only one Cowles employee is supposed to know the leaker’s identity. I interviewed the reporter in question. That reporter was one of several current and former Spokesman-Review reporters who refused to speak to me on the record for fear of Cowles retaliation. Spokesman-Review reporters confirmed to me that the leaker’s account is accurate. The Sloane/Schwartz memo, according to Spokesman-Review staffers, was considered such a hot potato that it was kept off-premises at the offices of Bill Powell, attorney for the in-house Spokesman-Review editorial union.

Rodgers’s political future is very much in question in the upcoming election because of her River Park Square stance. The Spokesman-Review has endorsed her opponent, ex-city councilman Jeff Colliton. Colliton was part of the city council that approved the RPS deal, and he remains a staunch supporter of it. Rodgers, opined the Spokesman-Review, isn’t a good problem solver.

Rodgers says she is aware that advocating full disclosure about River Park Square represents the narrow political gate. She doesn’t care. She says that her upbringing and life experience convince her that it’s Spokane’s only real hope of unknotting the tangled mess of the Cowleses’ shopping center and breaking the family’s century-old choke hold on Spokane.

Although Rodgers grew up poor, she thinks of her Montana girlhood as uncommonly rich. It consisted of two worlds; her mother is Irish, her father Blackfeet. Both parents were teachers and placed a high value on all learning. Her father taught American government, but in the family home U.S. history and Native American history carried equal weight. The family was devout Catholic, but it also honored Native American spiritual tradition. Rodgers sees little difference between the Christian belief that the world is God’s creation and the Native American belief that the earth is holy.

On the reservation where she grew up, in the little town of Hot Springs, everyone kept a garden, everyone contributed some skill, and the community was more important than the individual. A white buffalo, considered sacred, grazed in a community pasture across the road from Rodgers’s house. His name was Big Medicine. The Smithsonian Institute wanted to buy Big Medicine, but the Flatheads considered him priceless and wouldn’t sell. There was an old man with profoundly furrowed, sun-blackened skin who told the children ancient stories. Rodgers was taught to be alert to her surroundings and to look for signs everywhere.

Once, she saw a beaver gnaw off a foot to escape a trap. It was early autumn. Tamaracks streaked the forests with gold and the first snows whitened the nearby Cabinet Mountains. Rodgers watched the beaver lick its injury, and then it looked up and held her gaze for long seconds. The creature’s eyes seemed human. They were placid, devoid of self-pity. Rodgers was 10 years old, and she thought the beaver was offering her a lesson: get yourself caught in a trap, you may have to sacrifice a foot to survive.

Copyright (c) 2001 by camasmagazine.com
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One thought on “Judge Guy Meets Cherie Rodgers”

  1. Tim,

    Great post. I’m still reminded of the many similarities between the Lilac City and that epic movie, Chinatown:-) In some ways the outcome was the same. The perps in this crime made off with at least $87M of public taxpayer/parking revenue money. And the death of Jo Ellen Savage in the RPS Parking Garage was covered up as it would have unraveled this complex fraud.

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