City attorney limited Oreskovich’s role in Zehm case without telling council
A majority of Spokane City Council members expressed concern Wednesday when they learned the city has agreed to pay up to $200,000 in public funds to a private attorney who no longer represents them in a federal civil lawsuit filed by the mother of Otto Zehm.
The City Council voted twice to pay Carl Oreskovich to represent the city in the civil case. But Oreskovich said Wednesday his only client is the officer facing criminal charges in Zehm’s death.
Councilman Bob Apple was outraged and said he might ask for a full refund, while three other council members said they should have been informed before agreeing to pay for the civil defense of Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr., who now faces federal felony charges that he used unreasonable force and lied to investigators.
The council first voted in October to hire Oreskovich to represent the city, Thompson and other officers named in the civil suit stemming from the confrontation March 18, 2006, that resulted in Zehm’s death.
But shortly after that decision, City Attorney Howard Delaney and Oreskovich agreed that the private attorney would only represent Thompson, they both said Wednesday.
“Even though the resolution originally authorized him to represent the city,” Delaney said, “the tasks assigned to (Oreskovich) by me were changed fairly early on to represent Karl Thompson.”
But most council members said they didn’t know about the agreement before they voted May 26 to authorize paying Oreskovich up to $200,000 to “represent the City of Spokane and its employees.”
“Frankly, once they authorize me to have special counsel,” Delaney said, “I don’t routinely brief them on each and every thing I’m having that special counsel do, or what the assignments are.”
Four council members said Wednesday they wished they had been informed before they voted this spring.
“I did not intend to allow Oreskovich or whoever to drop representation and continue to be paid,” Apple said.
Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin doesn’t know if the information would have changed her vote. “I think I would have said, ‘Why is this one particular officer going to need more legal representation than anyone else?’ ” she said. “We have to make sure that we are extremely open when it comes to who is representing whom.”
Councilmen Richard Rush and Mike Allen said they would have preferred to have been briefed about the exclusive arrangement. “It would have raised questions,” Rush said. “The city will bear the liability of any adverse ruling by the court.”
City Council President Shogan would not say if he was aware of the agreement, adding that he would not comment about any information normally reserved for an executive session, which would be closed to public. However, Shogan said he continues to support a re-examination of the city’s representation in the case given the federal indictment.
“Whatever decisions were made in the past have to be re-examined in light of the present,” Shogan said.
Council members Steve Corker and Al French could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
Earlier Wednesday, Oreskovich requested a front page correction by The Spokesman-Review for a Tuesday article that quoted a law professor about potential conflicts that could arise by Oreskovich representing the city and Thompson in the civil matter and defending Thompson in the criminal case.
The professor’s “opinion is based on the false premise that I represent the City of Spokane. Once again, I do not,” Oreskovich wrote in letter to the newspaper. “The City of Spokane is represented by the City Attorney’s Office. My client is Karl Thompson.”
Both the October and May resolutions clearly stated the council was voting to hire Oreskovich to represent “the City of Spokane and its employees.”
Legal professor Robert Aronson, who teaches ethics at the University of Washington School of Law, questioned whether Delaney had the authority to make the agreement with Oreskovich. “The problem that I see is that the City Council is the client,” Aronson said. “At this point, with their twice authorizing funds … (Oreskovich) has to withdraw from representing the council. He can’t just decide I’m not doing their work anymore because both the city attorney and private attorney agree. They don’t get to decide that without discussing it with the City Council.”
Reached late Wednesday, Oreskovich said he will work to clear up any misunderstanding.
“My contacts were through the city attorney’s office,” Oreskovich said. “To the extent that there is any confusion, you can be assured that it will be straightened out appropriately.”
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