Required to avoid conflicts of interest
By Marcy Stamper
About 90 court cases from Okanogan County are being handled by prosecutors from other counties.
The use of other prosecutors puts the county in compliance with a 2020 state Supreme Court decision that bars a prosecutor’s office from handling any case that was handled by a law firm where the county’s prosecutor worked while in private practice.
Okanogan County appointed Jonathan Meyer, prosecutor for Lewis County and executive director of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, as independent prosecutor in January. The arrangement became necessary after the Okanogan County commissioners appointed Melanie Bailey, who’d been in private practice, to replace Arian Noma, who resigned from the prosecutor’s job halfway through his four-year term.
Cases are from both Superior and District courts. Meyer is handling about 40 cases himself. He farmed out others to prosecutors from Spokane, Douglas, Chelan, Ferry, Lincoln and Pierce counties, based on their availability. County prosecutors’ offices are historically staffed “rather leanly,” Meyer said.
The cases run the gamut, from driving with license suspended to murder, Meyer said. Since Spokane County has the largest office in Eastern Washington, Spokane took many of the major cases.
To ensure there’s no conflict of interest, the Supreme Court ruling is very strict. It disqualifies the entire prosecutor’s office from handling any case that Bailey handled while in private practice, or any case handled by a law firm Bailey was associated with. It also covers attorney/client privilege, so, even if the firm held a consultation but didn’t end up representing a client, the county would be disqualified, Meyer said.
Some of the cases are already mostly resolved — after a guilty plea, a case may need to be tracked to be sure the individual abides by the sentencing agreement, Meyer said. But others are likely to go to trial.
Meyer will make quarterly reports to Okanogan County Superior Court. Okanogan County has to pay for expenditures incurred by the other prosecutors, including mileage. Some counties may seek reimbursement for a deputy’s time. Meyer said he’s not allowing the additional cases to take away from his regular workload, and has therefore been spending “a lot more late nights and early mornings” to handle the extra cases.
Because the Supreme Court issued the ruling just last year, this is one of the first instances where so many cases needed to be reassigned. It’s common for a county prosecutor to be elected after a career in private practice, Meyer said. The court ruling barring any involvement from the prosecutor’s office applies only to cases handled by a law firm connected with the elected (or appointed) prosecutor, not to cases associated with a deputy attorney in the office.
The association of prosecuting attorneys, which includes all 39 counties, stepped in to ensure things are handled correctly. The association is committed to protecting the integrity of the system and to defending against any appearance of impropriety, Meyer said.
Meyer made the long trek from Lewis County to Okanogan almost weekly for the first month, but ultimately he expects to handle cases remotely and travel to Okanogan just once a month.
Because the list contains complex cases including murder, Meyer expects that visiting prosecutors will be handling Okanogan’s cases for at least a couple of years. For minor cases like DUIs, they may be involved in tracking compliance for several years.