On the eve of the toughest election of his career, Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist needs a favor from County Council members: taxpayer money, perhaps as much as $100,000.
The funds would pay for Lindquist’s legal defense in a pending disciplinary hearing before the Washington State Bar Association, scheduled to begin Dec. 10, one month after he faces off against challenger Mary Robnett in the general election.
The hearing stems from Lindquist’s ill-fated appearance on the “Nancy Grace” legal talk show in the midst of a murder trial. He’s accused of violating the rules of professional conduct for lawyers by commenting during the show on the defendant’s guilt.
The county has already spent about $62,000 on Lindquist’s defense, according to public records. The money has been paid to Stephen Fogg, the outside attorney representing Lindquist’s interests in the matter.
Monday, during a council study session, members learned that Lindquist will need more. The message came from deputy prosecutor Denise Greer, who spoke to members briefly.
Lindquist did not attend the session.
“This is a request from Prosecutor Mark Lindquist to increase the aggregate total for his lifetime limit, in light of the pending disciplinary matter,” Greer said.
The words “lifetime limit” refer to a cap on bar complaint costs approved by council members in 2015. The cap sets a ceiling of $30,000 in defense costs per individual complaint, and a lifetime limit of $90,000 for individual attorneys.
At the time, then-Councilwoman Joyce McDonald said the $90,000 limit “is more than sufficient to deal with any complaints or legal issues that are brought against any attorney that works for Pierce County.”
County records show that the costs of defending Lindquist from bar complaints now stand at roughly $81,000, pushing him close to the cap. About $19,000 of that figure comes from a prior complaint against Lindquist that was investigated and dismissed.
The remaining $62,000 is tied to the active complaint and the pending disciplinary hearing.
The hearing includes looming discovery deadlines, meaning more legal work and associated bills. During the study session, County Councilman Rick Talbert asked Greer about future costs. Greer replied that she had spoken with Fogg, who gave a rough estimate.
“He doesn’t know exactly what the legal expenses would be, but if it did go to hearing it’s maybe another $100,000 potentially at the big end,” she said.
The request for more defense money heads for a full council vote Tuesday.
The bar complaint, filed by local defense attorney John Cain, contends that Lindquist appeared on the Nancy Grace show against the advice of subordinates, and imperiled the appearance of a fair trial.
The defendant, Skylar Nemetz, was charged with first-degree murder following the 2014 shooting of his wife, Danielle. Nemetz said the shooting was accidental. Ultimately, a jury found him guilty of manslaughter.
After an investigation, including interviews with witnesses, the bar association’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel recommended the hearing last year. The recommendation suggested that Lindquist violated a rule that prohibits “conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.”
The request for a hearing also cited potential sanctions, including the suspension of Lindquist’s license to practice law.
Rules of professional conduct govern all lawyers, public and private. Rules for prosecutors limit their ability to discuss the potential guilt of defendants outside the courtroom, in order to protect fair trials. The rules specifically warn against statements “that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused.”
A disciplinary hearing involving an elected prosecutor is a rare occurrence. Most bar complaints are filed against private attorneys who practice criminal defense and family law. Typically (more than 90 percent of the time), complaints end in dismissals with no consequence for the lawyer. Discipline is rare, and discipline against prosecutors is rarer.
The bar association received 1,894 complaints against the state’s 31,919 licensed lawyers in 2017, according to its annual disciplinary report. Most were resolved or dismissed. Only 17 reached the stage of disciplinary hearings.
The same statistics show that 88 attorneys received some form of discipline, including 35 license suspensions and 14 disbarments. Another 18 attorneys resigned their practices in lieu of discipline, and 21 received reprimands and admonitions, the lowest form of discipline.
The association recorded similar numbers in 2016, when 70 lawyers were disciplined, including one prosecutor, Angus Lee, who served as Grant County prosecutor until 2014.
Private attorneys commonly rely on malpractice insurance to cover costs associated with bar complaints. Public attorneys rely on the agencies they serve to underwrite such costs. It’s a standard practice throughout the state.
Pierce County is no exception. The statutory obligation to defend the prosecutor’s office against bar complaints dates to 1991. Council members decided in 2015 to raise the lid on defense costs after a handful of bar complaints were filed against Lindquist and several staffers.
The new version of the lid established a process where attorneys who exceed the cap must seek approval from council members to spend more. Monday’s request for additional bar defense money was Lindquist’s second of the year.
Fogg, the attorney representing Lindquist, has repeatedly called the bar complaint “politically motivated,” and said there is “zero chance” that Lindquist’s license will be suspended.