Pierce County Council: No blank check for prosecutor defense, but a higher cap

Taxpayers will still pay the bills to defend Pierce County prosecutors facing complaints of professional misconduct — but it won’t be a blank check.

On Wednesday, County Council members passed a revised version of an ordinance to pay the costs, but preserved a cap after initially proposing to eliminate it.

Councilwomen Connie Ladenburg and Joyce McDonald co-sponsored the revisions. The vote was unanimous.

The old cap, established in 1991, set a ceiling of $15,000 per complaint, with a lifetime limit of $45,000. The new cap sets a limit of $30,000 per complaint, with a lifetime limit of $90,000. Future caps would be adjusted to inflation.

“We’re responsible to the taxpayers for the amount of dollars that are spent in this county,” McDonald said. “The (ordinance) allows for extraordinary costs. It is more than sufficient to deal with any complaints or legal issues that are brought against any attorney that works for Pierce County.”

The new cap passed by the council sets a limit of $30,000 per complaint, with a lifetime limit of $90,000. Future caps would be adjusted to inflation.

The ordinance passed in the midst of emotional debate and continuing controversy surrounding Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, who faces a storm of criticism: lawsuits, multiple complaints of misconduct, a recall campaign and a recently released whistleblower report with numerous negative findings.

Lindquist did not attend Wednesday’s council meeting, but plenty of his employees did — supporters who disagreed with a cap as well as critics who thought a cap was appropriate.

“What we’re asking for is equal protection. We deserve no cap,” said deputy prosecutor Scott Peters, the source of the original proposal to eliminate the limit.

Peters asked co-workers in the audience to stand if they agreed. Many did.

Others didn’t, including Steve Merrival, the longest-serving member of the prosecutor’s office, who filed a bar complaint in June against Lindquist and six of his staff members.

Merrival called the revised cap “a fair compromise.” At the podium, he held up a penny. He said it signified the taxpayer costs he has incurred from bar complaints in his career.

“Only with Lindquist does this issue of money and attorney fees become relevant,” he said.

Only with Lindquist does this issue of money and attorney fees become relevant.

Steve Merrival, deputy prosecutor

Unusual circumstances turned up the heat on what council members agreed would normally be a routine matter. Bar complaints are a standard headache for prosecutors and public defenders — for all attorneys. Most go nowhere — but the lengthy complaint filed against Lindquist and his staff is atypical.

It came from a colleague rather than an unhappy inmate or a disgruntled defendant. It alleges numerous acts of professional misconduct, many tied to a long-running criminal case overturned earlier this year because of prosecutorial vindictiveness.

Local defense attorney John Cain and retired sheriff’s deputy Mike Ames also signed the bar complaint, which is under active investigation.

The bar association licenses all lawyers in the state, private and public, and enforces rules of professional conduct. If bar complaints are upheld, consequences range from mild reprimands to suspension and disbarment. The Washington state Supreme Court is the final arbiter of those decisions.

For county attorneys, taxpayer-funded protection against bar complaints serves as a kind of malpractice insurance. Councilman Dan Roach tried to convey the point to audience members and citizens who might not understand why the county would provide any defense at public cost.

“Our deputy prosecutors — our attorneys — they don’t get malpractice insurance,” Roach said. “We want to make sure that people are defended.”

Other council members made similar points, telling the attorneys in the audience that their work is appreciated, and their need for defense matters. Ladenburg underlined that idea, reminding the attorneys that she’s married to former county Prosecutor and Executive John Ladenburg.

“It’s not easy work and it’s not work that you leave at the office,” she told the attorneys in the audience. “I wanted to make sure that we had something that would express a process that was objective, impartial and raises up the ethical standards in the office as expected by our residents.”

Ladenburg added that the current climate at the prosecutor’s office was driving some of the debate.

“What’s happening now is not our norm,” she said. “The last 10 years, we have not had those kinds of cases.”

In the last decade, county taxpayers have underwritten bar complaint defense costs three times. None of those complaints came close to reaching the old $15,000 cap.

She referred to a fact mentioned during debate earlier in the week: in the past decade, county taxpayers have underwritten bar complaint defense costs three times.

None of those complaints came close to reaching the old $15,000 cap, according to Al Rose, legal adviser to county Executive Pat McCarthy. However, Lindquist and the other attorneys named in the current complaint have reportedly reached or passed that threshold.

A separate element of the ordinance passed Wednesday set new limits on Lindquist’s authority.

Under the old ordinance, the elected prosecutor was the sole arbiter of whether an attorney facing a bar complaint acted in good faith in the course of professional duties. That crucial finding allows the attorney to receive a county-funded defense.

The new version of the ordinance changes that, creating a three-person committee: the prosecutor, the head of the county’s public defense division and the county’s risk manager.

Council members also added another safety valve: If defense costs for an individual prosecutor exceed the new cap, the council can approve additional money on a case-by-case basis.

That could spell possible relief for deputy prosecutor Lori Kooiman, who is named in the bar complaint. Monday, she told council members she faces legal bills that approach $100,000.

Councilman Rick Talbert tried to sum up the charged atmosphere surrounding a debate that might have drawn little attention at any other time.

“We’re trying to deal with issues absent of whatever is occurring at this moment, or whoever happens to be in the position of leadership,” he said. “But the reality is, especially for the public at large, it’s difficult for them to separate what they’re seeing in the paper on a weekly basis with regards to issues that are occurring in that office.

“We didn’t initiate this conversation. This was brought to us.”