Recent turmoil and back-stabbing in the Spokane County prosecutor’s office spilled into the courtroom this week with tales of spying, namecalling and door-slamming.
Two fired deputy prosecutors took the witness stand for the first time in their lives to try to get their jobs back.
They detailed a hostile workplace split by union issues and the 1994 campaign for prosecuting attorney won by Jim Sweetser.
Former Deputy Prosecutor Jennifer Boharski said Sweetser called her a “bitch” three times. He fired her on Jan. 3.
Michelle Solinsky, another former deputy prosecutor, said a co-worker spied on her, another defamed her, and she hadn’t talked to Sweetser in two years. He fired her Jan. 3, too.
Some witnesses during Wednesday and Thursday testimony described Solinsky and Boharski as talented, hard-working attorneys. Other testimony portrayed Boharski as a rude and petty supervisor and Solinsky as a poor attorney who skated on a light caseload because she was close friends with her boss, Boharski.
“You’d walk down the hall and say, `Hi,’ and she wouldn’t respond,” Deputy Prosecutor Patricia Thompson said of Boharski. “There was a Jennifer clique and then there was the rest of the office.”
Adams County Superior Court Judge Richard Miller will decide if Sweetser’s firing of Boharski and Solinsky - for not being “team players” - was unjust and violated their First Amendment rights to support Sweetser’s election foe, Steve Matthews.
Carl Maxey and Dennis Cronin, attorneys for the two women, also contend the firings violate Sweetser’s pledge to run the office with impartiality.
If Boharski and Solinsky win, they will get their jobs back.
The trial, expected to conclude late next week, is laced with office gossip and an unusual parade of attorneys, and even judges, to the witness stand.
Sweetser’s campaign had the backing of the county workers union because of his alleged promise to fire employees only when there is “just cause,” such as incompetence.
Sweetser maintains he never made the promise. The prosecutor has continued the office’s controversial policy of on-the-spot firings. He has fired six people since taking over in January.
Solinsky, now unemployed, said she turned down a job last fall with the Spokane law firm of Winston & Cashatt because she thought her job was safe.
Boharski said she didn’t seek a new job until after she was fired. She now supervises investigators for the state Department of Social and Health Services.
They both said they never got to demonstrate their loyalty to Sweetser.
Solinsky said that before county workers union Local 1553 started a prosecutor’s office union, she got along with Sweetser, then a deputy prosecutor.
“We’d go bowling together. Afterward, we’d go in and have a couple of drinks.”
Then she didn’t join the fledgling union, which still doesn’t have a labor contract with the office. “I don’t believe we have even talked to each other in the last two years,” she said.
Solinsky said another deputy prosecutor, Andrew Metts, often slammed the door whenever she walked by his office. “When the union formed, he basically ostracized me.”
Last June, she discovered the same colleague was “spying on me.”
He documented Solinsky’s comings and goings for more than a year on his calendar, and maintained Solinsky often was gone from the office for unauthorized reasons, according to court testimony.
Former Prosecutor Don Brockett investigated the allegation and found it groundless, Solinsky said.
In another clash, Solinsky said a deputy prosecutor “defamed” her, calling her a bad attorney. She referred her concerns to a supervisor for investigation.
District Court Judge Sam Cozza and former District Court Judge John Nollette - who have watched Solinsky and Boharski work - described them as talented, professional attorneys and good communicators.
However, Steven Tucker, a deputy prosecutor, testified that many office employees urged Sweetser to fire Boharski after the election.
“They were concerned she’d be in a position of power and a lot of people didn’t get along with her,” said Tucker, who described Boharski as a “strong personality” who “tends to be overbearing.”
Clark Colwell, chief criminal deputy prosecutor until 1994, defended the two attorneys.
He conceded Boharski could be difficult and abrupt, but noted part of her reputation as an unreasonable boss may have stemmed from orders he gave her.
“I told her that she had to be firm, she had to have guts and that on some cases, when necessary, she had to be blunt … I didn’t care so much about diplomacy.”
Sweetser’s attorney, Terrence Lackie, asked Boharski why she wanted to return to work for someone she didn’t respect and allegedly called lazy.
Boharski said she respected his office, and saw her role as working for the public anyway. “I miss being a prosecutor,” she said.
On Wednesday, the judge ruled that he would not compel Spokesman-Review reporter William Miller to turn over the notes from his interview with Sweetser. He also denied Lackie’s attempt to strike Miller’s testimony on Tuesday that Sweetser pledged a policy of no firings unless there was just cause during his campaign.
Before the trial is finished, as many as a dozen more employees in the prosecutor’s office may testify on Sweetser’s alleged campaign promise and the communication skills of Boharski and Solinsky.
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