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Nov 2, 2022 3 min read

City official accused Jewels Helping Hands of criminal activity, but provided no information to state agencies

City official accused Jewels Helping Hands of criminal activity, but provided no information to state agencies
"You know what I heard..." - That marmot, probably. (Photo illustration by Valerie Osier)

“The long and short of it is, none of the information has been substantiated.”

According to multiple sources present at a mid-October Camp Hope operational meeting, Spokane’s interim city attorney Lynden Smithson alleged the nonprofit Jewels Helping Hands is engaged in illicit activities involving guns and drugs at Camp Hope.

These allegations would have dire consequences if substantiated. Jewels Helping Hands has played an integral role in the day-to-day functioning of the encampment. If they were found guilty of running or participating in a criminal enterprise at the camp, the repercussions would stretch into every aspect of the Camp Hope community, and beyond, as residents of Camp Hope represent a significant portion of the county's total unhoused population.

There’s also reason for serious concern that these allegations were made but apparently not corroborated by the city in any way to state officials, who own the land and are currently providing funding to the organization. This lack of transparency creates the appearance that the city either is unwilling to share vital information with the state or that it does not have sufficient evidence to back up its claims, but made the claims anyway.

The meetings where this information was shared occur on a weekly basis between state agency representatives, Empire Health Foundation and officials from both Spokane City and County. They are supposed to be operational in nature and focused on nuts and bolts questions like whether the city can help provide utilities like water and power to the camp. These meetings are also intended to be free of politics. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich had attended some of these meetings but was asked to no longer come after meeting leaders decided having politicians in the meetings had become a distraction. He ultimately created a parallel meeting and command structure last week.

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State officials say they followed up with the city after the mid-October meeting to try to get more information about the allegations. “Comments were made about Jewels staff and criminal activity,” said Liz Rocca, the communications director for the Washington State Commerce Department. “When pressed for more detail, the commenters would not provide it.”

“We have heard the assertions of wrongdoing from the city and the county, but when asked to validate these claims, nothing is presented,” said Mike Gribner, the eastern region director for the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The allegations are serious to the Commerce department, because they’ve been providing funding to Jewels Helping Hands over the last several months. That money comes from the $3.5 million in Commerce money  awarded beginning in August to Empire Health Foundation (EHF) to run services at the camp. Jewels is one of many local service providers that EHF has sub-contracted with and the organization provides a wide range of services at the encampment, including organizing daily meals, case management, transportation for residents, peer support and classes to prepare people to get into housing.

Commerce said they would take immediate action if they were given any sort of proof of criminal activity by Jewels Helping Hands. “If these allegations are confirmed, Commerce will act swiftly and appropriately,” Rocca said. “The long and short of it is, none of the information has been substantiated.”

Neither the Spokane Police Department nor Smithson would provide any details about the allegations. “I cannot comment on information conveyed to the State,” Smithson said. “The information we have provided the State has been in closed-door meetings. To preserve the integrity of those talks, to ensure that the State believes the City will keep those meetings private, I cannot comment on our conversations.”

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich did offer some information about the source of the information, while deferring to the city for more specifics. “What the City Attorney had brought out was intelligence from a third party federal agency that basically talked to [criminal activity by Jewels Helping Hands],” Knezovich said.

He also said that the information wasn’t merely rumors or accusations. “When we say intelligence, that's not accusation anymore. We have vetted at that point,” Knezovich said. “So that means that that federal agency had vetted that information and it is intelligence at that point — as in, this is happening,” Knezovich said.

And while it’s common for agencies to keep their investigations close until they have solid evidence, it’s unclear why a federal agency — whichever that might be — would warn Spokane City officials about an investigation, but not state agencies like WSDOT, which owns the land Camp Hope sits on, or Commerce, which is funding Jewels.

Julie Garcia, the founder and executive director of Jewels Helping Hands dismissed the allegations and said she has not been contacted by federal law enforcement. “No one has even contacted us about our folks,” she said. “I just think [the allegations are] ridiculous.”

“The folks that work for us are sober,” she said.”If they're trading drugs and money, I think we would know. Also, these folks don't have drugs, money and guns — they don't have them. If they had a gun they’d’ve already pawned it for something long ago.”

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