Harrell Shakes Up Top Staff, Police Accountability Office Clears Officers Accused of Extortion

NewPhoto of Deputy Mayor Greg Wong
Newly appointed Deputy Mayor Greg Wong

1. Last week, Mayor Bruce Harrell informed his cabinet that he had replaced Deputy Mayor for external relations Kendee Yamaguchi, the former executive director for Snohomish County, with Department of Neighborhoods director Greg Wong, a former Pacifica Law Group attorney who took over at DON in February. PubliCola broke the news of Yamaguchi’s departure, and Wong’s promotion, on Twitter Monday morning.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a question about the reason for Yamaguchi’s departure, and an email sent to her city of Seattle address bounced back with a message containing Wong’s contact information.

A press release set to go out today said simply, “Kendee Yamaguchi served an instrumental role during our transition to office and in our early efforts to establish sincere and enduring relationships with stakeholders, organizations, and local leaders,” said Mayor Harrell. “We are grateful for her service and wish her all the best in her future endeavors.”

Wong, who lives in southeast Seattle, was the head of the Schools First campaign for the Seattle school levy elections in 2013 and 2016. According to the mayor’s office, he will focus on economic development, community relations, and arts and culture.

2. The Office of Police Accountability declined to sustain, or uphold, any of ten separate allegations in a 2017 case in which two police officers accused another officer of running a “mini-mafia” to prevent new companies from entering the market for off-duty work. The two officers were the founders of called Cops for Hire, since rebranded as Blucadia, that also connects businesses with off-duty officers.

The OPA complaint, which attracted significant attention at the time, accused officers working for Seattle’s Finest, a security company started by a retired SPD officer, of colluding to increase the pay of off-duty officers by intimidating and extorting the companies that contract with the firm, including the owners of Columbia Tower downtown. The OPA wrapped up its investigation in October 2018 but did not release the summary of its findings until last week.

The investigation found that the officer expressed his frustration by commenting that he would put a person who worked at the company in a “carotid choke hold.” A separate, related case described an interview with the FBI in which the officer said he was “just joking around and was trying to get a rise out of his audience.”

Police officers can make thousands of dollars in additional income by taking off-duty jobs in security or directing traffic through companies like Seattle’s Finest and Seattle Security, which is affiliated with the Seattle Police Officers Guild.  In some cases, police are paid for a certain number of hours even if they work less—four hours, for example, for two hours’ actual work.

According to the investigation, the officer with Seattle’s Finest, identified by the Seattle Times as MacGregor Gordon, said one of the company’s bargaining tactics was to name a high price for their services, and then—if a building owner balked—withhold their work as parking garage flaggers and force the owners to bear the consequences until they finally gave up and paid the price Seattle’s Finest demanded.

Investigators said they were “hindered” in investigating the claims of extortion because the business owners “refused to discuss the matter unless OPA could guarantee full confidentiality

The investigation also found that Gordon expressed his “frustration with garage management’s attempts to modify his contract” by commenting that he would put a person who worked at the company in a “carotid choke hold.” A separate, related case described an interview with the FBI in which Gordon said he was “just joking around and was trying to get a rise out of his audience” with his inflammatory comments

Former police chief Kathleen O’Toole referred the case to the FBI, which decided not to prosecute. We have a call out to OPA for information about why it waited until now to release the summary of its investigation.

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