The persistent pest

Kurt Hettiger, notorious rumor-monger, scores some legal points in his dogged crusade against City Hall.

WITH A FINAL SWAT, city attorneys hoped they would at last squash the pesky Kurt Hettiger. But Hettiger, the ex­Water Department pamphleteer who instigated false sex and assault rumors about former Mayor Norm Rice, has gained a federal court reprieve. He has thwarted city efforts to dismiss his two-year-old, $3.3 million lawsuit alleging he was fired and his civil rights violated because of the notorious accusations he made against Rice (who, ironically, turned them to his own political advantage). Acting as his own attorney, Hettiger has also succeeded in obtaining two subpoenas for police and telephone documents. These include a list of calls that he says will support his claims of conspiracy and death threats by city officials.

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Hettiger failed however to obtain a crucial third subpoena directing US Attorney Kate Pflaumer to produce an FBI background check done when Rice was a front-runner to become US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. In his April 10 order, US District Court Judge John Coughenour decided this material was "not relevant" to Hettiger's case. Coughenour did not state if he had reviewed the report, which is believed to have prompted President Clinton to pick Andrew Cuomo over Rice for the cabinet position. Though the FBI report is presumed to have focused on complaints of Rice's handling of a controversial $23 million city-backed HUD loan that aided the new Nordstrom-Pacific Place development downtown, Hettiger says he sent the FBI a lengthy complaint on the sex allegations as well.

The city remains confident it will finally wipe Hettiger from its swatter. "I think the court felt it was inappropriate to dismiss the case before he got the subpoenas he had requested," says Assistant City Attorney James Webber. "We plan to file a new motion for dismissal after he gets them." Hettiger, who now lives in Eastern Washington, couldn't be reached for comment. A water department worker for two decades, Hettiger was fired in 1993—the city says he quit—and launched a newsletter campaign against the department that eventually zeroed in on Rice.

In his Seattle Water Department Solidarity Newsletter ("Embarrassing the City of Seattle Since 1993"), Hettiger claimed he was fired because he repeated rumors about Rice around the office. As he distributed 65 editions of his protest flier on the street, it evolved into a crusade against Rice. Hettiger asserted in story and headline that the mayor's wife found him in a sexually compromising situation and shot him. He cited police and medical reports that would confirm the incident, but reporters who quietly investigated the claim could never locate the documents or substantiate the allegations.

AFTER RICE ANNOUNCED his candidacy for governor in 1996, KVI radio talk show host Mike Siegel repeated Hettiger's charges in a statewide broadcast. At an emotional press conference reported across the nation, Rice publicly and resolutely denied the accusations, telling the "cowards" who disseminated them, "Wherever you go, it is the lie and the rumor that defines you." This rebuke led to Siegel's firing and boosted the mayor's image: Many called him courageous for taking the public stage, family at his side. Rice also produced threatening postcards from Hettiger, one stating, "Your career is toast if I don't get mine back today."

Rice nevertheless lost the gubernatorial primary to Gary Locke, and observers still debate how his public rebuttal affected his career. After opting not to run for any other office, Rice is today—as he was before he entered politics—a bank executive.

Hettiger, who seems determined to write the first as well as last chapter in this saga, claims that after he launched his newsletter, city officials left him death threats. And he claims these can be traced and matched through the telephone records he might now obtain through the court order. The court also subpoenaed a Seattle police report on an assault claim made by Hettiger, which he says in court papers will also prove his claim. City attorneys are not persuaded. "I don't really know what he's driving at with those subpoenas," says Webber. "He's fighting for a job he quit, in our view."

Related Links and information:

Contact Chief Judge Coughenour

http://www.wawd.uscourts.gov/wawd/

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