Local

Tensions build in legal battle between McCarthy and Lindquist over phone records case

December 05, 2015 03:21 PM

UPDATED December 06, 2015 09:48 PM

The legal standoff between Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy and Prosecutor Mark Lindquist reached new levels of tension Friday, setting the stage for a potentially momentous confrontation in court Dec. 18.

The latest development is a shocker: a letter from County Council Chairman Dan Roach that essentially seeks to fire Jessie Harris and Hunter Abell, outside attorneys McCarthy has retained to represent the county’s interests.

“You are not counsel for Pierce County and Pierce County is not seeking to have you or your firm appointed as its counsel,” Roach’s letter states, in part. “The Pierce County Council controls litigation.”

Roach’s letter adds that the county won’t pay McCarthy’s attorneys for their legal services.

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“You are not counsel for Pierce County and Pierce County is not seeking to have you or your firm appointed as its counsel,” Roach’s letter states, in part. “The Pierce County Council controls litigation.”

The letter doesn’t reflect a vote by the council. Other members said they didn’t see it before Roach sent it.

McCarthy, out of the country last week, could not be reached for comment, but her staffers said Roach’s letter won’t change the executive’s course; she’ll let a judge settle the question in two weeks.

Both sides say they’re speaking for the county; they disagree about the best way to do it. The dispute centers on a long-running case involving text messages on Lindquist’s personal phone. The state Supreme Court ordered Lindquist to take steps to disclose those messages on Aug. 27; Lindquist hasn’t done it. Taxpayers have paid $315,945 to outside attorneys to defend Lindquist’s position, according to public records.

McCarthy believes county taxpayers are exposed to increasing risk as a result, and that Lindquist has a conflict of interest that prevents him from making unbiased legal decisions. In October, she obtained an outside legal opinion that says an actual conflict exists.

Lindquist disagrees; he and his staffers insist there is no conflict.

McCarthy believes county taxpayers are exposed to increasing risk as a result, and that Lindquist has a conflict of interest that prevents him from making unbiased legal decisions. In October, she obtained an outside legal opinion that says an actual conflict exists.

McCarthy wants Harris, an outside attorney uncontrolled by Lindquist, to represent taxpayers as the case moves forward. In October, she privately asked Lindquist to appoint Harris. Lindquist refused, then abruptly on Nov. 20 appointed Ramsey Ramerman, an assistant city attorney in Everett, as a special deputy prosecutor.

That decision prompted another round of outcry. Ramerman had prior involvement in the phone records case, and wrote legal briefs supporting Lindquist’s position that the text messages were private.

McCarthy, along with some Pierce County Council members, voiced misgivings about Ramerman’s hire, saying it provided further evidence that Lindquist was too conflicted to make fair decisions when his own interests were at stake.

Again, Lindquist and his staffers disagreed. On Nov. 23, County Council members declined to let McCarthy’s attorney speak at a public study session.

On Nov. 25, McCarthy upped the ante and filed a formal motion in the phone records case, asking a judge resolve the question of Lindquist’s potential conflict by hiring Harris.

Developments came in bunches Friday. Ramerman announced his formal withdrawal from the case. He said it was not because of concerns about conflicts of interest, which he called “nonsensical.”

Ramerman gave no specific reason for his withdrawal, though he criticized the tactics that led to it, including McCarthy’s motion to seek legal advice outside Lindquist’s control. In a written statement, he said, “I regret that I am unable to help the County resist these efforts but am confident that the County will ultimately prevail.”

At the same time, Lindquist’s office announced he had appointed two new outside attorneys to represent the county in the phone-records case: Michael Tardif and Jeffrey Freimund.

Asked for a statement, Lindquist initially did not respond, and referred questions to other staffers. Pressed for a direct statement, he said he approved the appointments, based on recommendations from his civil team.

Councilman Roach’s letter to McCarthy’s attorneys adds pressure to the power struggle, which revolves around legal authority. Under state law, the county prosecutor has the sole power to appoint outside deputies. McCarthy argues that state law allows a loophole when the prosecutor is “disabled” and unable to make unbiased decisions.

Roach’s letter, addressed to McCarthy’s attorneys, sides with Lindquist’s position.

“You are neither deputy prosecutors nor special deputy prosecutors. Please immediately withdraw both your unauthorized appearance and your motion,” the letter states. “Pierce County is not responsible for and will not pay any legal fee or expense related to your services in this matter.”

Reached Friday, Roach said he asked for the letter to be drafted after a discussion with County Council members, though he acknowledged no vote was taken.

He agrees that appointing an outside attorney is appropriate in the phone records case, but he said McCarthy can’t pick her own lawyer.

“I’m just not going to allow that to happen,” Roach said. “The executive does not have those powers.”

Other council members say they didn’t see Roach’s letter until Friday and didn’t know he’d written it.

Roach said the council’s attorney, Susan Long, drafted the letter at his request. Other sources said Long drafted the letter with help from Dan Hamilton, a senior attorney in Lindquist’s civil division.

Other council members say they didn’t see Roach’s letter until Friday and didn’t know he’d written it.

Does the letter reflect the will of the council?

“No, absolutely not,” said Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg. “I thought (Roach) went above and beyond where he was supposed to go. The letter makes it sound like he’s writing on behalf of the council.”

Councilman Derek Young shied away from saying whether the letter reflected the council’s will.

“I guess it’s kind of a statement of action that we haven’t taken,” he said.

Young added that the questions raised by McCarthy’s legal challenge create a dilemma unresolved in current law.

“There is no process for us to appoint another counsel,” he said. “That’s not for us to intervene — the only thing I can think is that the court could settle that.”

Councilman Rick Talbert, who supports McCarthy’s efforts to seek outside legal advice and a judge’s ruling, said Roach’s letter went too far.

“I don’t believe the chair (Roach) has the authority to express that opinion for the council,” he said. “The council has not taken a formal action to direct the chair to express that opinion so I found it very troubling.”

Added Talbert: “Clearly the prosecutor believes there’s no conflict and the county executive believes there is a conflict, and the council is kind of in the middle. It’s going to be up to a court now.”