Seattle utility used ATF cameras to nab restaurant workers dumping grease


SEATTLE -- City workers' handling of a grease-dumping incident has activists concerned about a slippery slope.

Emails sent by Seattle City Light security show the utility sought help from federal agents in setting up surveillance of restaurant employees in 2011 after the workers were caught dumping grease into the agency's underground vaults.

The emails were sent to the the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms over a period of several months and were recently obtained by Seattle Privacy Coalition, a group of citizens who fight for government transparency.

"If we provide a map of locations of the worst offenders, would your folks be able to install some temp cameras to capture the manhole areas," reads the email, written by Douglas G. Williams, a security manager for Seattle City Light. "The intent is to record evidence and follow up with local law."

"It really makes you wonder how much other surveillance equipment has been installed in the city," said Lee Colleton, who co-founded the coalition. "They go to the federal agency and get them to install surveillance equipment to punish and prosecute this really small crime. It's just very strange."

Colleton was on a protest march through the Central District this summer when he noticed a surveillance camera attached to a utility pole. A second trip with a friend unearthed another camera at 23rd and Union, which led the group to file public disclosure requests to figure out who owned the surveillance system.

"It was kind of a mystery where they came from. I got the runaround from multiple agencies but eventually ATF said it's their camera," said Phil Mocek, a Seattle Privacy Coalition co-founder. "If a camera's being used for an active investigation, that's one thing, but after it's over, we should be told why it was there."

An ATF spokesman did not return phone calls seeking comment.

A spokesman for Seattle City Light insisted the cameras are owned and operated by law enforcement and are on the utility's poles but are not actively monitored by City Light workers.

"We currently don't have access to the feeds. This was used at the time several years ago and is not in use today," said Scott Thomsen, a senior strategic advisor for the agency.

There were at least four illegal grease-dumping problems in 2011, Thomsen said. Two were in the University District near Brooklyn Avenue and another two were downtown.

Thomsen was not sure if anyone was caught, cited, or arrested.

"This is a work area to access electrical equipment so grease itself is going to make that area, the ladders going down into it and the area you're going to be standing in far more hazardous," he said. "Instead of having a clean environment to work in, you're now working in a greasy bit of muck. That makes your job a lot harder and less safe."

Mocek expressed concern about the cameras and any agency overstepping its boundaries, urging the public to question any surveillance they might see.

"You might expect that they're doing things related to alcohol, tobacco, and firearms," said Phil Mocek, a co-founder of the coalition. "It's not always serious crime. (The grease) is a problem, but that's not guns."

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