Stevens County’s two Superior Court judges have asked the state bar association to investigate Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen.
Judges Rebecca Baker and Al Nielson said in a Sept. 30 complaint that they were concerned about Rasmussen’s practice of encouraging defense attorneys to contribute to a Guatemalan orphanage he supports.
They submitted a copy of a February 2009 telephone message that a former deputy prosecutor found on a secretary’s desk. The message, from Spokane attorney David Miller, says: “He had a good month. Does your charity need anything?”
Miller said this week that he was “really offended” by the complaint. He said he and Rasmussen, like other lawyers, have a personal friendship that doesn’t interfere with their jobs.
Miller said he gives money to the Public Broadcasting Service and the American Federation for the Blind as well as the International Children’s Care orphanage. “That doesn’t mean I do it for any particular favors.”
Although Rasmussen knew he was under scrutiny by the bar, he didn’t learn until this week that Nielson and Baker instigated the investigation. The bar won’t comment publicly about unresolved cases, but The Spokesman-Review obtained copies of the complaint.
Baker and Nielson said in the document that they were concerned that donations to Rasmussen’s pet charity would be “favorably remembered” when the donor “might wish to achieve a more favorable result in a criminal case.”
“I just think it has a bad appearance of impropriety,” Baker said in an interview this week.
Nielson was unavailable for comment.
Even the perception of under-the-table dealing has a “corrupting influence” throughout the judicial system, Baker said.
The bar association treated the judges’ complaint as if it were from a confidential source, but Baker said she and Nielson sent a letter this week saying that wasn’t their intention.
Bar rules say confidential accusers can’t be told how a complaint is resolved unless there is public discipline, but Baker and Nielson want a full report.
“We need to know that this practice isn’t going to continue,” Baker said. Rasmussen said in his written response to the bar association that he has never solicited donations from Stevens County defense attorneys, “nor from any criminal defense attorney with whom I have regular contact regarding criminal cases.”
But Baker said some of the 10 Spokane defense attorneys Rasmussen identified to the bar practice regularly in Stevens County.
In addition to Miller, they include John C. Cooney, a former district court judge who retired from his law practice three years ago; his nephew Dallas Cooney; Christian Phelps, Ronnie Rae, Frank Cikutovich, Paul Mack, Frank Bartoletta, John Clark and Rob Cossey.
Bartoletta declined to comment and Rae couldn’t be reached. All the others praised Rasmussen’s professional ethics and devotion to helping Guatemalan children.
Most said they offered to help after hearing about Rasmussen’s work.
Cossey said he referred Rasmussen to his philanthropic wife, Stacy Cossey, after inquiring about photographs he saw on Rasmussen’s wall.
Cikutovich said he also was drawn to Rasmussen’s photos. He said he couldn’t expect any special consideration from Rasmussen because his law partner, Pat Stiley, isn’t on speaking terms with Rasmussen.
“Tim is a very conservative guy, and Pat couldn’t be farther from it,” Cikutovich said. “They’re oil and water.”
Cossey and other defense attorneys who contributed to the orphanage told The Spokesman-Review they met Rasmussen when he was a Spokane County deputy prosecutor. Most said they were inspired by the fact that Rasmussen spends his vacations in Guatemala, doing physical labor for children.
“It’s a sacrifice,” said Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Brian O’Brien, who supervises the district court unit where Rasmussen used to work.
O’Brien said he contributed $700 and helped Rasmussen acquire firefighting equipment for the orphanage.
“He couldn’t pressure me because I was his boss at the time,” O’Brien said.
He said Deputy Prosecutor Larry Steinmetz gave $300.
Deputy Prosecutors Tony Hazel and Jared Cordts, who worked with Rasmussen in the district court unit, said they also contributed.
“I think all of us did,” Hazel said.
Rasmussen and all of the donor defense attorneys who commented for this story say there has been no quid pro quo.
Several of the donors said they still haven’t been contacted by a Washington State Bar Association investigator.
Nielson and Baker, who also serve Pend Oreille and Ferry counties, told the bar association their concerns sprang from information “relayed to us by reliable individuals.”
One of them was John Troberg, who was Rasmussen’s chief criminal deputy prosecutor until Rasmussen fired him in June 2009. Troberg is now a deputy prosecutor in Clallam County.
The other, Baker said in an interview this week, was Colville-area defense attorney and former Ferry County Prosecutor Steve Graham.
The judges told the bar association that Graham heard from a Spokane defense attorney at a conference that the way to get a good deal in Stevens County was to contribute to Rasmussen’s charity.
Baker said Graham confirmed what he described as a casual conversation with a Spokane attorney, but Graham declined to identify the attorney.
Graham declined to comment to The Spokesman-Review.
The judges also said in their bar complaint that they had noticed “a number” of cases in which Rasmussen intervened to offer defendants “substantially” better deals.
“It is our sense that these dramatic compromises are rarely afforded to local counsel … but instead seem to involve Spokane counsel,” the judges wrote.
Troberg cited a case in which Rasmussen directed him to offer a better deal in an assault case in which Cossey represented a defendant who punched someone and later fired several shots to intimidate people.
Troberg said he was “flabbergasted” when Rasmussen offered the defendant a continuance for dismissal on an assault with a deadly weapon charge that carried a possible four-year prison term.
Rasmussen said the man had a nearly clean record, served nine months in jail on another count and provided valuable information about a cellmate’s motive in an unrelated murder case.
Colville defense attorney Robert Simeone said he’s seen no preferential treatment of out-of-town lawyers. On the contrary, he said, Rasmussen dropped a 2007 sexual assault charge against one of his clients and pushed for a maximum 10-year sentence for a co-defendant represented by orphanage donor Chris Phelps.Several of the attorneys who contributed to the Guatemalan orphanage point out that state law and their professional conduct code allow law them to contribute to a prosecutor’s election campaign – or even a judge’s.
“The guy can ask me for money for his campaign, but he can’t mention a charity to me. That just blows me away,” donor Paul Mack said.
Both Rasmussen and his opponent, Chewelah attorney Pat Monasmith, have received campaign contributions from defense attorneys.
Baker said in an interview this week that she and Nielson have no interest in the ongoing election battle between Rasmussen and Monasmith. “It is not a political issue to us although perhaps the voters might think otherwise,” Baker said.
Similarly, retired Superior Court Judge Larry Kristianson said his support for Monasmith is not a factor in his criticism of Rasmussen in a statement to a bar investigator and a guest editorial in a Suncrest newsletter.
“Rasmussen does not seem to understand that any financial favors given by defense lawyers to a prosecutor’s special charity appear improper regardless of the motivation,” Kristianson wrote.