WALLA WALLA — A misdemeanor criminal investigation involving Walla Walla’s mayor was reviewed by two city attorneys and a county prosecutor before a decision was made not to charge the city leader with simple assault.
Two of the three lawyers, after reviewing police reports about the alleged assault, reached different conclusions about whether Mayor Tom Scribner should be charged.
Ultimately, the case landed in the hands of Walla Walla County Prosecuting Attorney Gabe Acosta, who declined to charge Scribner.
The path to Acosta’s decision was not routine, however.
The Union-Bulletin filed public records requests to review police reports from the Walla Walla and College Place police departments and emails between officials from Walla Walla, College Place and Walla Walla County.
Some of those emails indicate that College Place City Attorney Rea Culwell — believing that she would be the official making the decision — planned to charge Scribner with simple assault weeks before the case was eventually given to Acosta.
The assault allegation was made by a Whitman College student who was taking a test Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023. Scribner was proctoring the on-campus exam.
The student told police that Scribner struck her while she was taking the test.
Scribner emphatically denied the allegation to the Union-Bulletin and said he had caught the student starting the test too early. He said he turned her test book to the instructions page she was supposed to be reviewing.
“Now, in doing that, may I have placed my hand on her shoulder or her arm? … That’s possible, as I’m leaning forward,” Scribner said. “But did I strike, hit or punch her? Absolutely, categorically not.”
When Walla Walla police were first informed about the incident, a report was made by an officer.
That report is dated Jan. 30, and in it, the officer stated he believed probable cause existed for Scribner to be charged with fourth-degree assault.
After that report was made, the case was handed to an outside agency to avoid the conflict of interest.
Walla Walla Police Chief Chris Buttice said that as soon as he learned the mayor was a subject of the investigation, he asked the College Place Police Department to investigate.
An email from College Place Police Chief Troy Tomaras to Culwell is the first public record to suggest Culwell would be handling the case. The email was sent Feb. 16, after the CPPD finished its investigation.
In that email, Tomaras wrote, “It sounds like College Place will handle the review and prosecution if appropriate. Let’s meet to discuss and review (the) case to ensure we have everything we need.”
The meeting occurred — later emails refer to it in the past tense — and Culwell began looking into the case. She interviewed the alleged victim to help make her decision.
She confirmed in May to the Union-Bulletin that she had intended to file charges. She also said the CPPD found the alleged victim to be “credible.”
Culwell sent Walla Walla City Attorney Tim Donaldson an email on Feb. 16 stating her plan to charge Scribner.
“Chief Tomaras represented to me that you wanted me to review the police reports regarding this investigation and make a charging decision,” Culwell wrote. “I believe there is sufficient evidence of the crime of assault 4.”
She asked what needed to be done to allow her to represent Walla Walla in the case.
Donaldson responded that he never authorized her to make any charges on behalf of Walla Walla, and never referred the case to her.
“Whatever was referred to you was done without my knowledge or approval,” Donaldson wrote back, also on Feb. 16.
Buttice told the Union-Bulletin that when he asked the CPPD to step in, the request did not include anything past the investigation stage.
He said he had no communication with Culwell and declined to comment further.
Tomaras confirmed to the U-B that he believed Culwell would make the decision about charges.
“We just assumed (Culwell) was going to take the case because we investigated it,” Tomaras told the Union-Bulletin. “It was then determined (Donaldson) wanted the case.”
The case then went more than two weeks before it was referred to another prosecutor.
On Feb. 27, Culwell reached out to ask about the status of the investigation, to which Donaldson replied, “The matter is still under review.”
Culwell said in the email that others in the city government had been contacted about the case by the public.
On March 3 — 15 days after Culwell had stated her intention to file charges — Donaldson referred the case to Acosta, who normally prosecutes felonies in Walla Walla County Superior Court.
On March 14, Acosta sent a letter to the CPPD declining to prosecute. In the form letter, he checked the box stating, “There is insufficient evidence, in light of the most likely and plausible defense that can be raised, to justify taking the case before a jury.”
The Union-Bulletin reached out to Acosta, who referred to the form letter to explain his decision.
Donaldson told the Union-Bulletin he routinely chooses to forward cases he can’t take himself to the Walla Walla County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office because its jurisdiction overlaps his own.
“The county prosecutor has concurrent authority over all criminal matters that might be handled by my office because they occur within the county,” Donaldson said. “I was not at all involved in any decision made by County Prosecutor Acosta regarding the matter.”
He also said he never referred the case to Culwell.
“My only prosecutorial referral in the matter at issue was to the county prosecutor,” he said. “The College Place city attorney has no jurisdiction over any matter occurring in Walla Walla city limits.”
‘Victim is not getting justice’
After Acosta’s decision not to prosecute the case, Culwell emailed him and Donaldson on March 28 to state her disappointment.
“I have to say that I am extremely disappointed that the victim is not getting justice in this case,” she wrote. “The proof of injury is crystal clear. And the perpetrator an authority figure at the time of the assault. She was in a vulnerable position.”
Scribner said he had been a proctor for tests at Whitman College for many years. He said the college informed him that it would no longer contract with him to proctor exams after the incident.
He said no one from the college reached out to him to get his side before informing him of that decision.
A spokesperson for Whitman College declined to comment.