Stevens County prosecutor seeks contempt of court sanctions against county commission

RaeLynn Ricarte
Staff Writer

The Stevens County Commission is facing possible contempt of court sanctions for actions taken in May to protect themselves financially in the case involving their disputed expenditure of homelessness funds.
“This is misuse of power and is corruption,” said Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen after discovering in September that the commissioners had set up framework to hire an attorney at taxpayer expense, and approved an ordinance that absolved them of paying damages.
“I am the county attorney and I did not know anything about this until one of my staff was reviewing online records for another matter,” he said.
Stevens County Commission Chair Wes McCart said he and Commissioners Steve Parker and Don Dashielle were acting upon the advice of their original attorney, Jerry Mosberg, in approving the ordinance and resolutions to hire Todd Startzell of the Spokane firm Kirkpatrick and Startzell.
“We have done nothing wrong, so to say we are corrupt is a pretty big allegation,” said McCart. “Where's the basis? Where's the proof? We haven't acted on the ordinance [use of public money] and we don't intend to act on it until such time that we know it is right to do so.”
Rasmussen said the rationale stated by the commissioners to justify their actions had already been presented to Spokane Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno, who had written “rejected” on the top of that filing.
“This is shocking and in complete disregard for the ruling by the judge,” said Rasmussen.
McCart said Moberg told the commissioners that the ordinance holding them harmless for actions taken as an elected official is something other local governments already have in place.
The need to hire another attorney, McCart said, came about because Moberg told the commission he would no longer represent them due to the fact his offices are in Moses Lake. “He really didn't give us much of a reason beyond that,” said McCart.
On Oct. 16, Rasmussen filed a brief to bring the matter to Moreno's attention. He requests that she find the commissioners in contempt of court and levy any appropriate sanctions.
His filing is based on Moreno's oral ruling on May 2 that McCart, Parker and Dashielle were prohibited from using taxpayer funds to hire an attorney for their defense in a case where they were subject to personal liability. She followed that up with a written order that was emailed to the commissioners on May 29 and filed in the local court on June 3.
Rasmussen noted that Parker was present in court to hear Moreno's May 2 ruling so he would have understand the judge's intent with the ruling.
In the underlaying case, Rasmussen is seeking to recoup $121,000 spent by the commission on two private projects out of the belief that taxpayer money was used wrongfully.
“They are sued as individuals in that lawsuit, not as commissioners, but they appointed a lawyer to represent them personally and ordered Stevens County to pay that lawyer,” said Rasmussen.
“They then voted to reimburse themselves for all legal expenses so far, and ordered that, if they are held personally liable at the end of the lawsuit, the county pay any damages.”
The ordinance approved by the commission to indemnify themselves was listed on the May 14 agenda as “board business.” Rasmussen said minutes from that meeting were innocuous and did not explain what had happened, which gives the appearance of secrecy.
On May 31, Rasmussen said another meeting took place, this one not listed on the agenda, and the commission used the prior ordinance to justify replacing Moberg with Startzell. They also approved their legal bills being paid by public funds.
“They signed three identical resolutions, but with each commissioner abstaining when the other two voted to indemnify one,” said Rasmussen.
“This was to make it look like they were innocent of any collusion in the decision and to avoid any conflict of interest.”
In their letters — identical except for the name — dated May 30, each commissioner stated that he had been “falsely accused” of wrongdoing in the award of homelessness funds. Each official noted that he had acted in good faith in his official capacity, which qualified him for protection from costs involved in his defense.
“The commissioners have proceeded in a devious manner,” said Rasmussen. “In doing so, they have given themselves an unconstitutional gift of public funds and run afoul of ethic laws.”

Find more on this story in the Oct. 23 issue of The Statesman-Examiner