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Banks vs. Barlean

Kelly Barlean claims he was persuaded to run against Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks by members of law enforcement who were dissatisfied with the way the office is run.

“I never would have run against an incumbent,” Barlean said, “unless there really was a problem.”

The Oak Harbor Police Association, the Coupeville Police Association, the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, the local State Troopers’ association, Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley and Coupeville Marshall Lenny Marlborough have all endorsed Barlean.

So what’s the cops’ problem with Banks? Or is the problem, as one Banks supporter claims, with just a few disgruntled officers and politically-minded officials?

Answers are hard to get. Though Hawley and Marlborough both signed a letter endorsing Barlean, they are cagey about discussing the issue. (The letter to the editor is on page A8).

“I ain’t getting into the middle of this,” Marlborough said Tuesday.

“I’m tired of politics,” Hawley said. “I really don’t care to comment about this.”

Deputies in the sheriff’s guild voted to remain neutral in the race. Barlean said the deputies were basically supporting him “by keeping their mouths shut.”

Several deputies said they were told they couldn’t comment on the race while on duty, though Hawley claims he gave no such directive. A couple of members of the Sheriff’s staff said they feared retribution from superiors if they talked about the race.

One deputy, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he supports Banks. “I believe Greg is doing the best job he can,” he said. “I believe very strongly in his abilities.”

Two retired deputies from the Sheriff’s Office have come out strongly in support of Banks, as has former Sheriff Arnie Freund.

Perhaps the best indication of why Barlean has received law enforcement support comes from the Oak Harbor police. Detective Sgt. Jerry Baker said that the police union voted to endorse Barlean at a meeting in which about half the members were present and many of the absent members voted “by proxy.” He said none of the members voted for Banks, though some people voted to remain neutral.

Sgt. Bill Russell said he strongly supports Barlean. He said he and other patrol officers have never worked with Banks personally, but trust the detectives’ opinions about him. He said the detectives have made it clear among the officers that they’ve dissatisfied with Banks’ “lack of aggressiveness.”

Another member of the department, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he supports Barlean because he trusts Detective Baker’s assessment of the race.

Bill Hanson, the executive director of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, said the organization endorsed Barlean because a member of the Oak Harbor Police Department called and asked him to. “I happen to know Kelly Barlean,” he said, “so that wasn’t a hard decision.”

Baker said his concerns about Banks are “philosophical.”

“I have nothing really bad to say against Mr. Banks,” he said, “it’s just a disagreement about how some major cases were handled. ... Not a single active-duty officer supports Banks and that speaks volumes.”

Specifically, Baker said he was upset that Oak Harbor resident Brad Hansen was allowed to plead to first-degree manslaughter instead of being charged with murder. Hansen got drunk and fired a shotgun into his girlfriend’s house four years ago and killed his girlfriend’s mother, Carolyn Paul, while she was watching TV in her living room.

“It should have been a murder case,” he said, “no if, ands or buts.”

Also, Baker wasn’t happy that Oak Harbor resident Mark Reading pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree child molestation and possession of child pornography with sexual motivation in Island County Superior Court, just a week and a half after being arrested. Baker said Reading was allowed to plea to a deal before all the evidence was in.

“It was a really good deal,” Baker said, even though Reading was sentenced to nearly six years in prison.

Baker said there’s also a lot of smaller cases that concerned him, though he didn’t go into specifics.

Baker said he also doesn’t think Banks handles enough cases personally. He said the deputy prosecutors have their hands full and they need a “working prosecutor” to take some of the load.

Perhaps most importantly, Baker said he just doesn’t like Banks’ attitude about law enforcement. He said he’s gone to forums and heard Banks speak. “One of my biggest beefs with Mr. Banks is that he almost implies that his job is to protect the public from the police,” he said. “If the police and prosecutor don’t work together, the victims don’t get served.”

Banks, not surprisingly, strongly defends his office and its record. He said he’s surprised by the strong support in the Oak Harbor police department for Barlean. He points out that his office rarely works with the “rank and file” officers since the city has its own attorney’s office. Almost all the involvement between the officers are with detectives.

Banks pointed out that his office works much more often and more closely with deputies in the Sheriff’s Office. He said he’s talked with many deputies and detectives who’ve expressed support for him.

Banks said state troopers are probably “mad as hornets” at him because he complained to a trooper’s superior after the trooper was caught in a lie.

Yet Banks said disagreements between law enforcement officers like Baker and prosecutors are natural. “In general, Jerry Baker is a detective and we’re the trial attorneys,” he said, “and if there’s disagreement once in a while that’s not that uncommon. If he’s unhappy about a couple of cases in two years, I think that’s pretty good.”

In the Hansen case, Banks said he and the chief criminal deputy prosecutor really had no choice but to charge him with manslaughter, given the evidence and the state statutes. Hansen shot into a dark home and didn’t intent to kill anyone, Banks said.

“We spent plenty of time with the family members before the deal was made,” he said, “and they weren’t happy with it. ... But you know, sometimes you have to be the bearer of bad news.”

In the Reading case, Banks said he somewhat agrees with Baker. He said the plea bargain was made without his consent. “It was an internal matter and it was handled internally,” he said, adding that there was discipline involved. Yet he said the result was pretty fair, given the problems in the case. The victim’s mother, he said, supported Reading over her own child.

When it comes to question of aggressiveness, Banks points to a couple of cases that former Prosecutor Bill Hawkins declined to prosecute. There’s the Linda Miley case, which Banks personally took on and got a murder conviction.

There’s also former counselor Glenn Jolley. A juvenile client of his accused him of rape years ago, but he wasn’t charged until more allegations came out and Banks’ office took on the case. There was a hung jury on the rape charge, but Jolley was convicted of indecent liberties.

“We prosecute a higher percentage of cases,” he said, “and handle more cases with the same number of deputy prosecutors. I think our prosecution standards are the same as any office across the state.”

The prosecutor’s office handles nearly 2,00 cases of all kinds each year with six deputy prosecutors handling criminal work and two attorneys who handle civil matters. Next year the office will likely lose a deputy prosecutor because of the county’s budget problems.

Banks said he never maligned law enforcement or meant to imply that his job is to protect the public against the police. He said that perception seems to come from Barlean, who, he said, distorted his view in public forums.

“Law enforcement has their job and we have ours,” he said.

Barlean, however, said he’s heard from many officers and deputies that there’s a real problem between Banks’ office and law enforcement. He said there’s a lack of communication, there’s a poor working relationship, and cops are “tired of cases being pleaded out at a lesser crime.”

When asked for specific cases that were handled badly, Barlean said he doesn’t like to drag outside people into the political fray, but he did point to the Reading case.

“It drove the police crazy that he was allowed to plea at arraignment,” he said. “It’s unheard of. You don’t know the full nature and scope of what this guy has done at that point.”

Even if the plea bargain was made without Banks’ consent, Barlean said it’s ultimately Banks’ responsibility. “As a former military officer,” he said, “when you’re in charge, you’re responsible for everyone under you.”

Yet in stark contrast to law enforcement, local attorneys have rallied around Banks. The Island County Bar Association recently conducted a survey and found that 85 percent of the 47 attorney who returned the questionnaire ranked Banks as the “first choice candidate.”

Oak Harbor Attorney Jacob Cohen, for example, said he endorsed Banks because he’s “a known quantity” and Barlean has no prosecution experience. Cohen said his endorsement is not because Banks offers “sweetheart deals,” as Barlean claims, but because he’s competent and experienced.

Cohen, who’s married to the Oak Harbor mayor, said he knows first-hand — from listening to his wife — how tight government budgets are nowadays. He said a prosecutor has to understand he doesn’t have the resources to try every single case or “the system would simply break down.” The prosecutor, Cohen said, has to show good judgement in what he prosecutes, and Banks has done that.

“Barlean doesn’t have the skills yet,” he said. “The taxpayers would have to pay for Barlean’s education.”

Cohen said a prosecutor has to learn to make plea bargains on stolen lawn mower cases, for example, in order to dedicate more resources to go after murderers and rapists. “If Barlean prosecutes all the cases the police want prosecuted,” he said, “the system wouldn’t function.”

Barlean, however, said he’s bemused by his lack of support among attorneys. He points out that he worked as a defense attorney in Snohomish County before being elected to the Legislature and “rarely rubbed shoulders” with local lawyers.

Barlean surmises that he real reason for attorneys’ support of Banks is because they want to continue their “good working relationship” with him — a relationship that he thinks is too close.

Few of the attorneys who endorsed Banks, by the way, practice criminal law.

But whatever the outcome of the election, both Banks and Barlean say they will harbor no bad feelings toward cops or lawyers.

“If I win,” Banks said, “I plan to keep working with (law enforcement) to put bad guys behind bars.”

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

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