Crime

County executive frets over prosecutor’s outside legal fees: $683,000 and counting

Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy is worried about rising legal bills from outside attorneys paid by prosecutor Mark Lindquist’s office, according to public records obtained by The News Tribune.

The bills exceed $683,000 paid to outside attorneys at taxpayer expense. The figures appear in billings compiled by the county’s risk management division, and the costs continue to mount.

Through intermediaries, Lindquist says he’s defending the county against frivolous lawsuits. McCarthy says she’s doing her job and keeping an eye on taxpayer money.

An email exchange between the two elected officials and a subsequent face-to-face meeting last month underscored McCarthy’s concerns about the escalating legal bills.

The biggest chunk of money comes from a long-running legal battle over Lindquist’s personal cellphone records. The case rang up $253,449 in outside attorney fees. A second case, linked to a retired sheriff’s deputy seeking a hearing to clear his name, has triggered $248,334 in outside attorney fees.

Both cases are still active, generating continuing fees. The prosecutor’s office has suffered recent setbacks in both of them. On July 31, Superior Court Judge Kevin Hull ruled that the county wasn’t entitled to sanctions and legal fees from retired deputy Mike Ames.

The county had already won one prong of the case — Ames didn’t get the name-clearing hearing he was seeking — but the county lost its argument for attorney fees and sanctions.

The News Tribune wrote about the decision, and quoted Phil Talmadge, one of the outside attorneys hired by the county to pursue the case. Talmadge, who charges $375 per hour, said the county would appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

McCarthy, in the midst of assembling a proposed budget for 2015, was already concerned about the outside attorney fees. Reading the quote from Talmadge prompted her to send an email to Lindquist on Aug.1. She noted that the spending affects all county departments, not just the prosecutor’s office.

“I am increasingly concerned about your desire to spend county money on a case the county has already won,” she told Lindquist. “I question the wisdom in spending additional monies in an attempt to cover legal costs in this case.

“As you know, the cost of litigation is reflected in increased risk management costs for the department, but only 80 percent of the cost is recovered from the (risk management) department. The other 20 percent is borne by the county as a whole.”

An Aug. 4 reply email from Doug Vanscoy, chief of the prosecutor’s civil division, said the county has been “extraordinarily successful in defending against the lawsuits involved here. We made a policy decision not to pay nuisance value settlements, and we have successfully executed that policy, saving the county some money in the short term and, we believe, saving it significant money in the long term.”

Vanscoy wrote the email before the county lost a separate decision regarding Lindquist’s personal cellphone records. On Sept. 9, the state Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that Lindquist’s personal phone records and text messages were subject to potential public disclosure if they involved public business.

The appeals court ordered a lower court to conduct a private review of the records to make the determination. That action is pending.

The third case involving outside attorneys is linked to Harold Wright, a former Tacoma middle school principal who sued the county for malicious prosecution after being charged with second-degree rape. Legal fees from that action cost the county more than $181,000.

Wright was convicted in 2007. He appealed. The Court of Appeals reversed his conviction in 2010. County prosecutors re-filed charges, but subsequently dropped them. Wright sued in federal and state court. The case was thrown out of federal court. He appealed that decision, and he is also appealing in state court. So far, the county has been winning the various appeals.

Asked for comment on the fee issues, Lindquist referred questions to Vanscoy, whose civil division oversees the cases.

“In most cases we use in-house counsel, but occasionally we turn to outside counsel,” Vanscoy said via email. “We make that decision based upon resources, conflicts of interest, appearances of conflicts, and attorney expertise. We do not have the resources to handle every lawsuit against the county in-house.

“Whether we use in-house or outside counsel, we aggressively defend the county against meritless lawsuits. We make solid business decisions with the best interests of the county in mind and also with an eye toward a just result.”

COMMON PRACTICE

Hiring outside attorneys is common practice for local governments large and small. The city of Tacoma does it. King County does it. Vanscoy noted that King County’s costs for outside attorneys run to roughly $3 million per year.

The fiscal arrangements for outside attorneys are spelled out in contracts. The News Tribune obtained those contracts via public disclosure. The records show that the contracts are somewhat open-ended; they can be amended as costs increase. Records of this year’s cases show the contracts have been amended several times.

Reasons for using outside attorneys vary; sometimes it’s unavoidable, especially in cases that present conflicts of interest.

The case involving Ames, the retired sheriff’s deputy, revolves around the prosecutor’s mandatory duty to disclose evidence that might be favorable to the defense. Talmadge, a former state Supreme Court justice, is familiar with those issues.

The county has also relied on Mike Patterson, a Seattle attorney who charges $300 per hour. His firm has represented the county in other matters, including multiple damage claims tied to former Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam.

The Washam claims led to multiple settlements that cost the county $1.13 million. Those costs were borne in part by the county’s risk management office, but the assessor’s office continues to feel the fiscal effects; portions of the settlement costs are baked into the agency’s future budgets.

Vanscoy’s email to The News Tribune described the Ames case as frivolous. He acknowledged the recent ruling that denied sanctions, but he added that Ames is appealing other aspects of the case, forcing the county to play defense and respond.

“Though the Ames case is frivolous, if not properly defended the case could open the door to a rash of lawsuits affecting prosecutors and the justice system statewide,” Vanscoy said.

McCarthy said she met with Lindquist and Vanscoy last month after the email exchange.

“I’ve got a responsibility to monitor total county spending,” she said. “We just needed to have a check-in. We all agreed that we need a few checks and balances, to make sure we all agree that those decisions are good decisions to make. He has to do his job, and when it’s necessary to hire outside counsel, they need to do that.”

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