A nine-year legal battle between a Gypsy family and Spokane County appears to have ended with a closed-door agreement between the City Council and county commissioners.
Under the proposal - still to be finalized - the city of Spokane would assume all liability and defense costs for the $40 million Marks family lawsuit which is pending.
In exchange, the county would pay the city $390,000.
“They totally indemnified us. From the county’s standpoint it’s clear, this case is settled,” said Claude Cox, county risk manager.
The City Council unanimously agreed to the buyout in a closed-door session Monday. If formally approved on Aug. 28, the county would not be held liable for any damages or defense fees in the case.
The civil rights lawsuit remains in U.S. District Court. The next hearing is set for Oct. 16 in Seattle. A trial, however, might still be years away.
In a statement Tuesday, county Commissioner Steve Hasson said the agreement “can start the healing process.”
Commissioners also were concerned the longstanding lawsuit was affecting the county’s credit worthiness. The suit was filed before the county joined a statewide insurance pool, which now picks up some costs for large liability awards.
“The fear was that with any civilrights claim, if we would have lost this thing the jury would have gone crazy (with damages),” Cox said.
From 1988 to 1995 Spokane County paid $425,373 in legal fees and expenses to private lawyers defending county sheriff’s commanders and other employees involved in the raid on two Gypsy homes.
The battle between the Marks family and the city and county began in 1986, when police investigating a fencing operation searched the homes of Jimmy and Grover Marks.
Officers confiscated $1.6 million in cash and as much as $500,000 in jewelry, some of which was later identified as stolen. A burglar told police he sold stolen property to Jimmy Marks.
The raids were ruled illegal by the state Supreme Court. Jimmy Marks, Grover Marks, the Gypsy Church and 26 of its members then filed the $40 million civil rights suit.
At one point in the case, city and county officials estimated their liability could be about $1.3 million. The city agreed to assume two-thirds of the liability, because the city Police Department was the lead agency in the raids.
Those figures were used to arrive at the $390,000 settlement.
Sources indicate the deal between the city and county came about quickly - and after the county started to negotiate directly with the Marks family.
Though Hasson supported settling the suit since 1992, the idea didn’t gain momentum until George Marlton, a former defense attorney, replaced Commissioner Skip Chilberg. Bobby Marks, in fact, has a Marlton campaign sign on the lawn of his home on South Thor Street.
Instead of using attorney Jerry Neal, the private attorney who has handled the county’s defense for a $125-an-hour fee, commissioners asked Cox to approach the family directly.
Cox said he met with the Marks family 10 times and got along with them well.
The county and the family were close to a structured settlement involving the purchase of an annuity that would have paid the Marks children $1.2 million over a 10-year period.
But someone in the family bragged about the negotiations to City Hall and staff there asked the county to pay them the money instead.
Commissioners agreed when the City Council came through with the latest offer.
“We honestly did try to reach some accord with the Marks family,” said Hasson. “This was not a sting operation.”
Bobby Marks and an attorney for the family said the deal would not affect their lawsuit. But it adds another twist to the lengthy litigation.
“I stopped being surprised years ago by what happens in this case,” said Gregg Smith, a Marks family attorney. “I just read it in the paper.”