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Cops, lawyers put candidates in the hot seat

It was cops versus lawyers at a fiery debate between candidates for Island County Prosecuting Attorney during a forum held at the Oak Harbor Senior Center last Thursday night.

About 50 people showed up for the question-and-answer session between incumbent County Prosecutor Greg Banks and Rep. Kelly Barlean, who is challenging Banks for the prosecutor’s position. In addition to law enforcement, city and county employees, along with plenty of attorneys, sat through the forum sponsored by the Oak Harbor police and Island County Sheriff’s guilds.

The candidates answered a series of written questions before addressing audience members’ queries.

The main issues of contention that night revolved around Barlean’s lack of experience as a prosecutor and a perceived rift between Banks’ office and law enforcement.

“Next year we are losing a deputy attorney,” Banks said, alluding to county commissioners’ budget cuts. “It’s not a good time to bring in a neophyte who’ll have to take a couple of years to learn what he’s doing.”

Barlean, who repeatedly referred to “brave” and “hard-working” law enforcement, said he has the people skills and commitment to victims’ rights necessary to bridge the gap between the prosecutor’s office and law enforcement.

“My door is going to be open to victims at all times,” he said, “and my door is going to be open to law enforcement at all times.”

Several attorneys, however, were loudly skeptical of Barlean while some deputies were very critical in questioning Banks. A group of people from Banks’ office came to support him and challenge Barlean’s earlier assertion that their morale was low.

This split between attorneys and law enforcement was echoed in recently-announced endorsement. While practically every attorney on the island has endorsed Banks, the Oak Harbor Police Association and the Coupeville Deputy Marshal’s Office endorsed Barlean.

At the forum, the candidates and several audience members became especially hot under the collar when addressing a now-infamous e-mail exchange between Banks and a deputy. People in the Sheriff’s Office had been circulating the letter for weeks. Barlean circulated a much-edited copy of it at a recent forum in Freeland and held it up as the reason Banks shouldn’t be prosecutor.

“It goes to show he’s someone who doesn’t have the temperament and people skills needed,” Barlean said.

Banks, however, chastised Barlean for playing dirty politics by publicly discussing and circulating the out-of-context excerpts from the letter. He likened Barlean to an attorney who makes his case using tainted evidence.

“This is the only example we have of my opponent presenting evidence, making a case...” Banks said. “A deputy prosecutor who pulled a stunt like this would be disbarred.”

In the actual e-mail messages — which were obtained by the News-Times weeks ago — the deputy complained that it took four hours for the prosecutors to get a search warrant. He also wrote that someone in the prosecutor’s office accused deputies of being racist. He added that he was so embarrassed to be an Island County deputy that he considered resigning.

In response, Banks defended his office and pointed out it only took prosecutors a short time to process the warrant request, which was apparently lost in the sheriff’s office for hours. In regard to the racial remark, Banks used an expletive inserted into “give me a break,” adding that maybe the deputy should resign if he can’t give his facts straight.

The exchange goes on for several pages. But the version Barlean circulated contains only a few short fragments from Banks and none of the original message from the deputy.

A couple of deputies at the forum said they were upset that Banks used the vulgarity, which they argued showed disrespect and unprofessionalism.

“I was talking to a police officer, a fairly hardened one, not the girl’s choir,” Banks said, but he apologized for using the particular word.

In addition, attorneys in the audience questioned why Barlean and people in the Sheriff’s Office had made the e-mails public. The e-mail messages are “work product” regarding a pending criminal case, the attorneys argued, and distributing the messages jeopardizes the case.

Barlean, however, said he didn’t actually “circulate” the letter. But he admitted to holding up the letter during the forum in Freeland and publicly urging people to take copies of it from a table in the back.

A couple of attorneys questioned the candidates about how they decide if a document is a “work product” or not. Banks gave a technical answer citing recent case law, while Barlean said he would look to see if the document was “stamped” as work product.

This earned Barlean jeers from some audience members. One man said he was in law for 30 years and never knew any lawyer or prosecutor who went through and labeled each document. “A good lawyer should be able to tell,” he said.

A member of the audience also questioned Barlean about his claim that he’s prosecuted twice as many murder cases as Banks. Barlean explained that when he was in private practice in Everett years ago, he defended an accused murderer in two different trials.

The first trial ended in a hung jury. In the second trial, Barlean’s client was convicted, but the conviction was later overturned in appeals court.

Banks explained that he personally tried a complicated murder case against Camano Island resident Linda Miley early this year. The former county prosecutor, Bill Hawkins, had declined to go after Miley for the 1997 murder, but Banks put the case together and got a conviction.

Members of law enforcement questioned the candidates about how prosecutors should involve police and victims in deciding how to handle a case. They criticized Banks for being too quick, they say, to make plea bargains.

Two deputies complained that DUI cases are too often plea-bargained down to lesser negligent driving charges.

In his closing remarks, Barlean said prosecution and law enforcement “have to be working together one the same sheet of music.”

“I can assure you,” he added, “I’m not going to cuss at you, treat you with disrespect or send you out an e-mail asking you to resign.”

Banks countered that Barlean is an inexperienced lawyer who comes with strong political strings attached.

“Who will be calling the shots,” he asked, “if the prosecutor doesn’t have independence?”

Banks is a Democrat and Barlean is a Republican. Voters will decide between them in the Nov. 5 general election.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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