Viewed from a distance, the Spokane County prosecutor’s office looks like the epitome of teamwork.
Its 60 deputy prosecutors stagger under an all-time volume of cases, but still convict more than 90 percent of the people they take to court.
Inside the domain of Spokane County Prosecutor Jim Sweetser, however, harmony and teamwork seem to be just phrases on a poster.
Publicly, Sweetser is directing the attack on crime with confidence and authority. But behind the screen, he is spending increasing amounts of time trying to defuse personnel disputes that are causing staff departures, labor grievances and nasty office politics.
At the heart of the battle are questions about Sweetser’s management style.
At stake is how well Spokane’s crime-fighting prosecutor can do his job. A number of Spokane Superior Court judges, taking note of the frictions, have privately expressed concern that morale issues might erode the county’s ability to prosecute criminals and hand out justice.
His critics say Sweetser’s treatment of support staff and attorneys is arrogant and unpredictable.
Many deputy prosecutors - saying they can’t be identified for fear of retaliation - worry that the fissures caused by unrest are eroding the office’s effectiveness and morale.
Equally ardent supporters say Sweetser is making needed changes. Those changes - including standardized evaluation forms and a scoring system for attorneys - are not sinister, they say.
“It’s much easier now for team leaders to be innovative,” said Dave Hearrean, in charge of the office’s gang-crime unit. “Before Jim, we could never have made changes without going back up the chain for approval.”
But those changes have created unrest, with an added factor being the sense of betrayal at Sweetser’s alleged about-face on the issue of a deputy prosecutors’ union.
As a deputy prosecutor himself, Sweetser campaigned for the $88,871 per year head prosecutor’s job by promising he’d fix what he called “the lowest morale in this office’s history.”
Halfway through his four-year term, some workers at the office say Sweetser reneged.
Instead of backing a union or offering deputies better job security, Sweetser insists he has absolute authority to fire at will.
The end result, former Deputy Prosecutor Dawn Cortez said last week, is a “chaotic office” with conditions that are “much worse than at the end of (former Prosecutor Don) Brockett’s time.”
Cortez is one of three experienced deputy prosecutors who’ve left this year for other jobs, citing the office turmoil as contributing factors in their choice.
Cortez, a six-year veteran of the office, is about to start a “career move” job with the state attorney general’s office.
“The situation here was a factor but not the sole reason I left,” said Cortez, who has been in charge of all prosecutions of rapes and child abuse.
Like others who’ve weathered the office battles, she points to the union issue as the ultimate irritant between Sweetser and his deputies.
The key request made by attorneys is for a contractual guarantee that they can be fired only for “just cause.”
They say Sweetser supported that idea when he campaigned, and even earlier when deputy prosecutors first formed a bargaining group under Brockett.
Sweetser denies he made that promise.
“I said I would treat them with dignity and respect and negotiate a contract that the law allows me to,” Sweetser said.
He also insists that county deputy prosecutors have jobs with special responsibilities and duties. That means their jobs cannot be protected or guaranteed through contracts or union oversight, he added.
His position was strengthened two weeks ago when a Lincoln County judge ruled that deputy prosecutors have no collective bargaining rights and can be fired at will.
A week later, as county union representatives talked about a strike, Sweetser sent a memo to all 130 people in his office, warning that any involvement in a strike could lead to immediate firing.
It’s unclear how the Lincoln County judge’s ruling will affect the four counties in Washington that already have agreements with deputy prosecutors - King, Snohomish, Pierce and Whatcom.
“In those counties, this level of animosity has not occurred,” said Tom McBride, executive secretary of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
“Spokane is the first time we’ve seen a case of an office fighting internally. Usually, the prosecutor and the deputies take a shared stance, then deal with county officials as one group,” he said.
While labor issues seem the biggest barrier, some attorneys in Sweetser’s office say his management approach is immature, punitive and inconsistent.
One deputy attorney was verbally lashed by Sweetser in a meeting for having his legs up on his desk and speaking to the boss with his arms crossed.
“Jim told him that his body language revealed a refusal to listen to his ideas,” said former deputy prosecutor John Grasso, who quit Sweetser’s office in September for private practice.
Sweetser, who brags about having read about 300 books on management philosophy, insists many in his office are supportive but fear being branded as scabs by pro-union workers.
He’s devised a “due process” system that helps middle managers evaluate deputy prosecutors. “That change caused fear and anger here,” Sweetser said.
“I’m trying to modernize an archaic system. The whole goal is creating the best prosecutor’s office possible, because that’s what the public needs,” Sweetser said.
In an effort to defuse tensions, Sweetser recently contacted an outside management consultant about analyzing his office operations and efficiency.
Although he’s gone no further than discussing that step, many of Sweetser’s deputy attorneys have attacked the idea.
“We’re worried that the consultant will find, among other things, that office tensions are due to just ‘a few negative individuals’ - exactly what Sweetser wants to hear,” said one deputy prosecutor.
In another step toward office “healing,” Sweetser last week issued a statement saying he’ll give deputy prosecutors limited grievance procedures they’ve been seeking through contract negotiations.
He’s doing that “as office policy,” hoping to “keep the progress we have made” so far in resolving the labor tug-of-war.
Deputy Prosecutor Steve Tucker, president of the deputy prosecutors bargaining group, said the office attorneys are still uncertain what that concession means.
Office unrest has also been fueled by Sweetser’s promotion of outside attorneys to positions experienced deputies deserved, said Grasso, who worked for the county for eight years before quitting recently because of the tensions.
Grasso said Sweetser has lost the trust of some of his deputies because of two hires made in the past two years.
One of those was Kathryn Lee, who was hired last year with limited criminal prosecution experience. Within several months Lee was promoted to team leader of the major crimes unit - in effect, the No. 2 post in the office.
This year, Lee’s fast rise became a quick fall after she was widely criticized for botching two criminal cases. She requested furlough for a career criminal who was later arrested and charged with raping a 14-year-old girl.
She also dropped charges against a man accused of robbing a convenience store who was taped on the store’s video system. She claimed the tape wasn’t solid evidence, while others said Lee simply failed to meet the case’s speedy trial deadline.
In September, Sweetser reassigned Lee to head the misdemeanor unit - but did not reduce her senior-attorney salary of about $57,000 a year.
The other outside hire was attorney Martin Muench, whose job is to serve as office labor attorney.
Grasso and others said Muench has no other criminal cases and tends to be seen as Sweetser’s union-stopper.
“Those two hirings - plus how Sweetser reassigned people who were pro-union to lesser jobs - were really galling to a lot of people,” said Grasso.
At the same time, Grasso insists that all county prosecutors strongly support their boss’s tough, anti-crime approach.
“We were still able to do our job effectively, prosecuting criminals.
“But the (unrest) affected communications and the level of trust in the office,” Grasso said.
“It created tensions, in making you wonder if you were being seen or perceived on the basis of what position you took. Were you for Jim or not?”
Tucker, like Grasso and Cortez, said the Spokane office has an unusual number of hard-working prosecutors.
“But I’m worried,” Tucker continued, “that if things don’t change, we’ll lose more exceptional prosecutors like Dawn Cortez.”