Opinion

Soundoff: Public defender asks county for too much

By Greg Banks

Island County prosecutor

Our Island County commissioners have identified transparency and openness of government as top priorities. The days of favoritism should be over. Since I am not a decision-maker in approving a proposed public defender contract amendment, I have no conflict of interest. I spoke up to provide information and analysis so the county commissioners could make an informed decision.

With the backing of Island County’s Superior Court judges, public defense contractor Tom Pacher asked the commissioners to increase his contract to $560,000 per year for four and one-half years. That is 50 percent more than his current contract, which he won three years ago by bidding against other firms. Unlike every county department, Mr. Pacher did not submit a line-item budget. While county officials brace for cuts and justify every line-item in their 2010 budget proposals, Mr. Pacher is seeking a black-box $2.2 million contract with four years of increases.

I have no problems with the legal services provided by Pacher’s attorneys. I agree that the public defender should be adequately staffed with attorneys paid at a level equivalent to my deputy prosecutors. But a 50 percent increase must be justified, especially since he won the contract only three years ago by saying it would cost significantly less.

Mr. Pacher’s justification was in a memo that the county’s public defense administrator and Superior Court judges presented to the commissioners. Other criminal justice officials were not notified of the meeting when the pitch was made. I was able to track down a copy of the memo the next day. It was immediately obvious to me that the reasons offered for Mr. Pacher’s 50 percent price hike did not hold water. The commissioners, none of whom are lawyers, would have little reason to question the claims.

For example, Pacher and the judges said a proposed court rule would cost the county $53,500 per year in additional criminal defense work. The proposed rule (CrR 4.1) was rejected by the Supreme Court last January. Since it does not exist, it won’t cost a dime. The commissioners would have no way of knowing that if I didn’t tell them.

Another rule Pacher said justified $42,000 of the increase was mischaracterized. The rule says the amount the Pacher firm already receives for its investigator needs to be itemized in the contract. Pacher and his county sponsors said the rule required the county to pay him again for the same investigator. I call that double dipping.

Island County, at the request of our judges, just adopted the lowest defender caseload limits in the state. These limits are not required by state law to be set at this low level.

Even so, the impact of the lower limits on Pacher’s contract is overstated. Pacher won his existing contract knowing he needed enough attorneys to meet the old annual limit of 400 misdemeanor cases per defense attorney. The new standard lowers the limit from 400 to 300 misdemeanors per attorney per year. (My misdemeanor deputy prosecutors handle over 650 each, and have handled as many as 850.) Pacher’s firm defended 535 indigent misdemeanor defendants last year, which requires two defense attorneys under both the old and the new standard. The lower limit should not cost him any more. He is asking for more money to take cases he is already under contract to defend.

Knowing these facts, how could I hide them from the commissioners? Pacher’s backers tried to silence me, falsely asserting that I had a conflict of interest. If they had succeeded in shutting me up, the contract would have sailed through, double dipping and all. It still may. But, at least it will be a decision made with the Commissioners’ eyes wide open.

The reaction to my exposing these facts has been swift and strident. Some of those allied in favor of the $2.2 million contract have responded by criticizing my ethics and my motives. My motive is to ensure the county’s contractors are held as accountable as county departments. My only allies are the law, the facts and the light of day. Based on the reaction of the Pacher backers, it seems that some power brokers are not yet accustomed to the new emphasis on transparency and openness.

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