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Officials Want Prosecutor Out Of Office Power Struggle In Adams County Pits Commissioners, Prosecuting Attorney

A power struggle in Washington wheat country has Adams County commissioners trying to shove elected county Prosecuting Attorney David Sandhaus out of office.

After a year of wrangling over money, the two sides have a legal showdown set for Jan. 13 in the county courthouse in Ritzville.

Commissioners say Sandhaus has broken promises to stay within his budget. They say he has to post bonds totaling $15,000 to cover deficits his office has racked up this year.

Sandhaus replies he is the victim of an old boys network trying to stop his aggressive crime-fighting efforts in the county of about 15,000 people.

“Last year, I sent 26 people to prison. Before I got here, this county would only prosecute four or five people for felonies each year,” he said.

On Jan. 13, Sandhaus and his attorney will appear before the commissioners, arguing that he doesn’t have to post a new $10,000 bond they’re demanding.

An 1890 law requires elected officials to post a bond to ensure “the faithful discharge of all duties.” Under that law, commissioners say, Sandhaus must post the bond or they can declare his office vacant - a move they say they’re prepared to make.

Sandhaus was hired in 1994 after the previous prosecutor, who also had battles with the commissioners, resigned. Sandhaus won the office later that year in an election.

A number of times this year, Sandhaus and commissioners have scuffled over policy issues. He insists they are interfering with his right to prosecute criminals.

They argue he’s spending too much time on criminal prosecution, not enough on civil matters.

This summer, they told him he couldn’t hire an extra deputy prosecutor. He shot back that they couldn’t stop him as long as he didn’t exceed his annual budget, and he hired the deputy.

Two weeks ago, commissioners learned Sandhaus has overspent his budget by more than $2,000. They also discovered he had not posted the bond, which is required of every elected official.

Sandhaus posted a $5,000 bond within three days.

Commissioners then found what they say are additional overruns in the budget.

County Commissioner Bill Wills figures Sandhaus’ office bills are more than $7,000 over budget. “We just don’t let government run that way,” Wills said.

When they insisted he post another bond for $10,000, Sandhaus refused.

“They have the authority to ask me to do that,” he said. “But they haven’t provided any reason that indicates why I need to do that.”

He contends his actual office deficit is around $2,200, mostly due to secretarial overtime for the higher number of cases he is prosecuting.

Ultimately, he contends, the reason commissioners oppose his efforts is the cost of his policy of aggressive prosecution.

“The older system of plea bargaining was easier. My going to trial is cutting into their money,” Sandhaus said.

Although Sandhaus doesn’t face re-election until 1998, Wills and the two other commissioners insist they can remove him from office for failing to post the second bond.

“We’re not backing down on this,” said Wills, a Lind merchant.

Sandhaus, in the middle of finding a private attorney, says commissioners can’t remove him on the basis of a bogus issue.

He says the state constitution allows the Legislature to remove an elected official by a two-thirds vote.

“Or if I commit a felony, they can get me out.”

Sandhaus said he has tried unsuccessfully to find a mediator to resolve the dispute, but, he contends, commissioners aren’t interested in that. He’s willing to go to court to keep his job.

“But what bothers me is that the commissioners claim they’re acting from concern for fiscal responsibility,” Sandhaus said. “Then they’re getting the prosecutor and the commissioners into a legal dispute that will cost thousands of dollars and undermine the ability of my office to prosecute crime.

“In the end, it’s the people of Adams County who are the losers here.”

Commissioner Bill Schlagel describes himself as a Sandhaus supporter but sided with Wills and Commissioner Shawn Logan in voting to require a second bond from Sandhaus.

“I’m in hopes he’ll put up the new bond. We don’t want to let this continue because it’s affecting the ability to do our public duties,” Schlagel said.

Schlagel, a retired rancher and irrigation system salesman, says Adams County is - as Sandhaus charges - an old boys network.

“If Dave had gone a little slower, he’d be better off. But he came in, and … I guess he didn’t pick the right fights to fight,” Schlagel added.

“I agree with his approach. But I wish he’d have moved slower. This is a small county, and you got to roll with the punches.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo