Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist has survived an inquiry by the county’s ethics commission that found no basis to believe he violated local ethics rules, according to public records.
But statements from a former high-ranking deputy prosecutor, submitted after the commission’s inquiry ended, undercut that finding.
They add new fuel to allegations of a quid pro quo: the idea that Lindquist accepted free legal representation from a private attorney and suggested funneling taxpayer-funded legal work to the same attorney in exchange.
The statements come from Mary Robnett, who served as Lindquist’s chief criminal deputy from 2009 to 2012. Robnett recently submitted a pair of letters to the ethics commission, obtained by The News Tribune via public disclosure.
Robnett describes conversations that happened while she was present, saying Lindquist suggested private attorneys could receive taxpayer-funded legal work in exchange for personal favors.
One of those attorneys, Stewart Estes, has represented Lindquist’s personal interests at no cost since 2011. The long-running lawsuit involves Lindquist’s phone records, which were sought by sheriff’s deputy Glenda Nissen in the course of a legal dispute.
After agreeing to represent Lindquist for free, Estes subsequently received more than $587,000 in paid legal work on other county matters, such as marijuana litigation, according to public records.
In 2014, Lindquist directly and publicly endorsed the hiring of Estes for that work, in a statement to The News Tribune.
Estes has denied any expectation of paid work in exchange for his free representation of Lindquist.
Asked Friday about the allegations from Robnett, Lindquist responded via email. He said he was pleased with the overall findings by the ethics commission and questioned Robnett’s credibility.
“A well-respected Judge concluded there were no violations,” Lindquist wrote. “I’ve stayed focused on community safety and so have the good people in our office. As public servants, we understand we are going to be the subject of rumors and false accusations, but it’s disappointing that a former employee has stooped to this. Her timing is curious and her motives are questionable, giving her zero credibility.”
Robnett offered her own response via email.
“I was privy to many of Mark Lindquist’s conversations before I decided to leave that job,” she said. “I heard what he said and my statement is true. The other facts speak for themselves.”
The recent findings from the ethics commission were completed Feb. 5, before Robnett submitted two letters that contain new allegations regarding Lindquist.
“I was present during at least one conversation regarding Mark Lindquist personally intervening in the Nissen public records litigation,” Robnett wrote in a letter dated Feb. 16.
“Mark Lindquist made it clear that he would not intervene if it required him spending his own money for an attorney. Mark Lindquist approved (deputy prosecutor) Dan Hamilton asking Mr. Estes to represent Mark Lindquist personally, at no charge, to intervene in the county lawsuit.
“Mark Lindquist suggested that if Mr. Estes represented him personally in the Nissen matter, that Mr. Estes could profit from other legal work for Pierce County in the future.”
A second letter from Robnett describes a similar statement. It states Lindquist urged Robnett to sue Nissen personally, and added that her attorney, Clay Selby, could benefit.
“Lindquist suggested to me several times that that if Mr. Selby would take my case on a contingency, his firm could benefit by getting some lucrative work from Pierce County,” Robnett’s letter states.
Robnett chose not to sue Nissen. But Lindquist pressed the idea again, her letter states, and suggested Robnett should hire local civil attorney Jack Connelly.
“During the fall of 2011, Mr. Jack Connelly was running for political office,” Robnett wrote. “Mark Lindquist again suggested to me that Mr. Connelly could file a lawsuit on my behalf (against Detective Nissen) on a contingency basis in exchange for Mark Lindquist’s endorsement of Connelly as a candidate for office.
“I found the suggestion absurd, and I don’t know if this suggested quid pro quo was ever communicated to Mr. Connelly.”
Connelly ran unsuccessfully for a state Senate seat in 2012 against then-state Rep. Jeannie Darneille. Lindquist did not endorse either candidate.
Reached last week by The News Tribune, Connelly said he had never heard of Lindquist’s alleged endorsement offer. He added he wouldn’t have accepted a legal case on such a basis.
“I had no knowledge or information about that,” he said. “I would obviously not do something like that.”
Friday, The News Tribune followed up with Lindquist, and asked explicitly whether the conversations Robnett described occurred, and whether Lindquist made the statements regarding paid legal work for attorneys Estes and Selby, and the political endorsement for Connelly.
Responding indirectly, Lindquist replied, “the suggestion of a quid pro quo with any of the attorneys is false.”
Deputy prosecutor Hamilton also responded to an explicit question regarding statements in Robnett’s letter.
Said Hamilton: “Mr. Estes was never promised paid county work in exchange for his pro bono representation in Nissen, nor did I ever discuss such a proposal with Prosecutor Lindquist.”
Asked about the allegations involving Lindquist’s reputed offers of taxpayer-funded legal work in exchange for favors, an expert in legal ethics said the prosecutor could be exposed to criminal sanctions if the story is true.
“Assuming it’s true, it’s unethical, a misuse of power and an indictable offense,” said Ellen Yaroshefsky, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City. She directs ethics courses within the school and consults on legal ethics for other organizations, including the American Bar Association.
“It’s both unethical and it likely could subject him to current criminal sanctions” if the allegations are true, Yaroshefsky said. “You can’t use public office for private gain. It’s not permissible. It’s contrary to the notion of government service. That’s indictable. You can’t do that.”
Robnett now works for the state attorney general’s office. Lindquist’s continued pressure led to her departure from the prosecutor’s office in 2012, according to records of a whistleblower investigation completed last year.
“Lindquist continued to press Robnett to sue Nissen,” the records state. “The conversation came to a head in October 2011. Robnett had a pointed discussion with Lindquist, told him that she was not prepared to sue Nissen and then left on a long road trip. She decided during the trip that she could no longer work for Lindquist and the (prosecuting attorney’s office) and resigned upon her return.”
HOW THE ETHICS INQUIRY BEGAN
The ethics inquiry began last October after publication of the whistleblower report, which described the circumstances involving free legal service provided to Lindquist by Estes. Under the county’s ethics code, employees cannot accept gifts worth more than $25.
The ethics commission, a five-member body appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the County Council, meets once a month. Aided by a hearing officer, it reviews complaints of possible ethics violations by county employees; the commission has no authority over Estes or other outside parties.
Because of conflicts of interest, the commission retained an outside attorney and appointed retired Superior Court Judge Thomas Felnagle to conduct the inquiry. His role: to determine whether probable cause existed to support an investigation and a hearing.
Robnett had expected to be called as a witness. But Felnagle found no probable cause, which meant no subsequent investigation, hearing or testimony from witnesses.
The commission’s deliberations are cloaked in secrecy; the ethics code states that complaints are confidential and cannot be discussed in public. Citizens who file complaints are prohibited from disclosing their existence.
The News Tribune attended multiple commission meetings between November and March. Commissioners held private executive sessions on each occasion. The nature of the deliberations was not described, except in the most general terms. Felnagle’s final report provides the only record of the inquiry.
The report indicates Felnagle focused on the quid pro quo allegation and spoke to Estes, Hamilton and Lindquist. It states that Hamilton suggested Estes could represent Lindquist for free in the public records litigation, and Lindquist agreed. Hamilton and Estes denied that there was any discussion of county work in exchange for the free service.
In essence, Felnagle found Lindquist was allowed to accept free service because the public records issue was a matter of important public policy. But he also noted that subsequent paid county work for Estes created a questionable impression.
“The fact that future cases and significant fees were later obtained by Mr. Estes are circumstantial evidence that perhaps there was a ‘wink and a nod’ exchange between Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Estes in regards to future employment and thus a tacit understanding that Mr. Estes would receive future business,” Felnagle wrote.
He added that the original whistleblower report is “replete with concerns that would trouble any citizen. There are a variety of avenues to address those concerns. It is, however, my conclusion based on the findings set out herein that probable cause does not exist to believe that Mark Lindquist has violated the Ethics Code.”
Felnagle finished his report on Feb. 5, before Robnett submitted her letters. On March 9, the commission met to consider a motion for reconsideration based on Robnett’s submissions. Members rejected the motion after an hourlong executive session.
Commissioner Tim Malarchick said his vote was based on the permissible grounds for reconsideration in the ethics code. He said the criteria had not been satisfied, though he did not describe it.
The code allows reconsideration if the hearing officer (in this case, Felnagle) is perceived to be biased. It doesn’t mention the prospect of additional evidence.
Commissioners declined to discuss their deliberations when asked by The News Tribune. Felnagle said he was bound by similar restrictions.
“This is really a frustrating deal, because everybody knows what’s going on, but then you can’t talk about it,” he said. “The ethics code doesn’t really tell you what do if you have after-acquired material.”