The Pierce County Ethics Commission will rely on legal analysis from a retired Superior Court judge as it investigates possible violations of the county’s ethics code by Prosecutor Mark Lindquist.
The five-member commission met Wednesday and formally announced that retired judge Thomas Felnagle will serve as a hearing examiner during the investigation, expected to stretch into the new year. He’ll work under a $7,500 contract.
Felnagle, a former prosecutor and counsel to Gov. Booth Gardner, served on the Pierce County bench for 22 years, gaining a reputation for fairness among his colleagues. He retired in October 2014.
The commission will focus its inquiry on a recently released report of a whistleblower investigation of Lindquist’s office. Felnagle will analyze the report, determine whether any of the actions described present possible ethics code violations and forward his recommendations to the commission. Hearings and testimony could follow; or Felnagle could conclude no violations occurred.
The precise nature of potential ethics violations is unknown, but the whistleblower report found that beginning in 2011, Lindquist received four years of free legal service from Seattle attorney Stewart Estes, who represents Lindquist’s personal interests in a long-running case tied to the prosecutor’s personal phone records.
Under the ethics code, county employees are prohibited from accepting gifts worth more than $25.
Estes and his law firm— Keating, Bucklin and McCormack — subsequently received $587,263 from Pierce County taxpayers for other legal work, according to public records.
The firm hadn’t done any business with the prosecutor’s office before Estes agreed to represent Lindquist on a pro bono (free) basis.
Those facts raised questions of potential conflicts of interest and allegations of a “quid pro quo”: paid work for Estes in exchange for free lawyering for Lindquist.
Deputy prosecutor Dan Hamilton, one of Lindquist’s chief litigators, recently told The News Tribune that Lindquist was advised by staffers that accepting the free legal service would not violate the ethics code, because the phone records case was a matter of broad public policy that could affect all public employees.
Estes recently told the News Tribune he agreed to represent Lindquist for free with no expectation for other work, and the county subsequently hired him due to internal staffing issues.
In the whistleblower report, Hamilton said there was no quid pro quo because the county had “no cases in the pipeline” to offer Estes.
Nonetheless, the pipeline soon generated cases and work. Public records obtained by The News Tribune show that Estes signed six county contracts for legal services between February 2013 and March 2015. The cases ranged from a lawsuit against the county filed by a former educator to litigation involving county marijuana ordinances.
Another contract Estes signed generated about $50,000 in legal fees: In 2014, Estes reviewed documents in anticipation of a possible lawsuit by sheriff’s deputy Mike Ames, who had clashed with Lindquist in a separate dispute.
A separate contract, also signed in 2014 and budgeted for $50,000, involved similar work: Estes was tasked with providing legal advice in any lawsuits threatened by sheriff’s deputy Glenda Nissen, the plaintiff in the long-running phone records case.
Estes was representing Lindquist’s personal interests in the phone records case at no cost. Signing the separate contract for paid legal service created a scenario whereby Estes represented Lindquist personally for free and the county for pay at the same time — against Nissen, the same plaintiff.
Allegations of conflicts of interest are swirling beyond the ethics investigation. County Executive Pat McCarthy recently filed suit in Thurston County, arguing that Lindquist can’t represent his personal interests and those of taxpayers at the same time in the phone-records case. The arguments are set for Dec. 18.
Estes also represents Lindquist’s personal interests in a federal lawsuit tied to a long-running sex-abuse case dismissed due to prosecutorial vindictiveness.
The ethics investigation is unlikely to touch those matters. According to Kruger-Leavitt, the whistleblower report is the primary record commissioners will use in the inquiry.
It’s not limited to allegations involving Lindquist alone; the 67-page report covers numerous allegations involving various staffers in the prosecutor’s office. One section of the report describes active politicking for union elections on public time, including a whiteboard listing favored candidates.
The ethics commission has the power to issue subpoenas, hold hearings, levy fines and in rare cases, refer potential criminal violations to law enforcement. Fines can range from $500 to an amount that triples the value of a wrongly accepted gift.
Kruger-Leavitt said the commission has also retained a Seattle attorney Mike Scott to provide legal advice following Felnagle’s recommendations. Normally, an in-house prosecutor advises the commission. That can’t happen in this case, since the whistleblower report was focused on Lindquist’s office.
Commissioners don’t want the issue to linger.
“I would like us to move quickly,” said commission chairwoman Mari Kruger-Leavitt. “I don’t want this to drag out for six months or kind of limp along.”