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U.S. attorney nominee has long felt called to the law

Mike Ormsby   “I love what I do … and the opportunity you have to make a difference every day.”
Mike Ormsby “I love what I do … and the opportunity you have to make a difference every day.”

Ormsby has Obama’s nod, but pick has critics as well

Mike Ormsby can blame his godfather if the U.S. Senate confirms him as the next U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington.

At age 11, Ormsby got worked up over something he viewed as unfair. He then spoke to his godfather, the late Mike Hemovich, about his work as a criminal defense attorney.

Hemovich “told me what a noble calling being a lawyer was,” Ormsby said. “He said you are in a position to help people in a number of ways as long as you were willing to listen to their issues and problems. I was hooked. From that point forward, I was going to college and law school to become an attorney.”

Ormsby, whose practice mostly includes public finance and municipal law, granted an interview to The Spokesman-Review last week before he learned of an e-mail from the U.S. Justice Department admonishing him against making any comments until after his confirmation hearing. That hearing, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, has not yet been scheduled.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., recommended Ormsby to replace U.S. Attorney James McDevitt more than a year ago. Just recently, President Barack Obama nominated Ormsby to the post, which mostly involves supervising criminal and civil prosecutors who handle federal cases in U.S. District Court.

“Mike has a vast knowledge of the law and of the communities he will be serving,” Murray said this week. “He is well-qualified to be the next U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington.”

McDevitt said Murray couldn’t have picked a better candidate.

“Mike’s ethics are at the highest level,” McDevitt said. “He’s just a stand-up, quality guy.”

McDevitt added: “I would trust Mike with everything but my vote,” a minor dig to Ormsby’s longstanding Democratic leanings.

But the selection has generated letters of protest from some in the community who have laid a good portion of the River Park Square legal tangle at his feet. Former Spokane Mayor John Talbott and other critics of the public-private partnership last year sent a letter to the White House and members of Congress saying they believe Ormsby is the wrong person for the job because of his involvement in the controversial project involving the city and Cowles Co. development interests. River Park Square is an affiliate of Cowles Co., which publishes The Spokesman-Review.

In the 1990s, Ormsby was the attorney for the Spokane Downtown Foundation, a nonprofit organization set up to sell bonds to purchase the River Park Square parking garage and pay investors back with proceeds from the city’s parking revenue.

“At a time when it’s vital that the Justice Department send a message that it will not tolerate private fraud and public corruption, Mr. Ormsby’s appointment would send the opposite message,” the critics wrote in a five-page letter that claimed the transaction was rife with fraud.

When the Talbott letter was sent in March 2009, Ormsby called it an “effort to demonize me as part of this project.”

In the interview last week, Ormsby said he doesn’t hold a grudge against those who sent the letter. “The project happened and it’s now behind us,” Ormsby said. “I guess I’ve let it go and tried not to think about it much. I understand that people develop very, very strong feelings about an issue. I may not agree with them, but I certainly respect … the vehemence in the way they hold their views and their rights to express their views.”

Ormsby’s firm, K & L Gates, eventually settled a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service that he and another attorney did not perform “due diligence” necessary before bonds were sold to investors. The firm paid $1.4 million in fees and taxes assessed by the IRS as part of its settlement with the city.

Asked about that settlement with the IRS, Ormsby said: “That litigation is now resolved. I really don’t want to comment on it any further.”

Former City Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers, one of the people who signed the letter, said she believes it’s fair to judge a person’s career on a couple of transactions.

“It speaks to someone’s integrity,” Rodgers said. “That was a major deal for the city of Spokane. Every dime of parking meter money used to go to … police and fire and streets. Now it goes to paying off those bonds.”

Current U.S. Attorney McDevitt, who worked at the same firm as Ormsby before being selected to the post by former President George W. Bush, said it’s clear mistakes were made in the River Park Square project. “But stupid decisions don’t make a crime.”

Upon request from Talbott and others, McDevitt asked his counterparts in Western Washington to review the project’s records; they announced in September 2008 that they could find no instances of fraud or any criminal activity.

Friends and colleagues call Ormsby a hard worker who has always put his extensive family before political aspirations.

Those started at the ripe age of 18, when Ormsby became the youngest-ever member of the Spokane School Board.

“It was a great experience,” he said. “It was one of the best lessons about how to disagree with people but do it agreeably.”

The oldest of eight boys, including State Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, Ormsby served on the school board through college and law school at Gonzaga.

“I moved six blocks to live in a dorm in Gonzaga,” he said. “And my first house was three blocks from the dorm. I’m a public affairs and political junkie. I’m fascinated by it. The best way to satisfy that is to spend time with other people.”

Former Spokane Mayor Jack Geraghty has known the 53-year-old Ormsby for more than 30 years. At one time, many believed Ormsby was being groomed to take the place of former U.S. Speaker of the House Tom Foley.

“That didn’t happen,” Geraghty said. “In the meantime he built an important and highly respected law practice. He’s just an outstanding person.”

Ormsby acknowledged that the pull of politics almost uprooted him from Spokane.

“I certainly was interested in elective public office early in my career. Then our kids came along and my wife and I had a very candid conversation about my priorities,” he said. “I talked to one of my friends who missed the first four or five years of his son’s life. To me, that’s too high a price to pay.”

Instead, he contributes to most major Democratic campaigns and has helped support candidates for local offices. Since 1997, he’s contributed more than $11,000 to dozens of races, elections records show.

Ormsby has served as the president of the Spokane County Bar Association, on the board of trustees at Eastern Washington University, the Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce and the State Advisory Committee for the state Department of Social and Health Services, to name a few.

Todd Woodard, the spokesman for Spokane International Airport, worked with Ormsby’s late brother, Pat, under Foley. Mike Ormsby currently serves as attorney for the airport’s board.

“It’s not uncommon to get an e-mail from Mike at 4 or 5 a.m. or 8 or 9 p.m. He just never stops. He’s that kind of dedicated person,” Woodard said. “If you approach him with a question, he doesn’t just tell you what you want to hear. He tells you what you need to hear. He’s a gentleman of impeccable integrity.”

Those late hours are something Ormsby said his wife, Jeanette, who teaches in the West Valley School District, hopes will change.

“Unfortunately, I probably spend more time in the office than I should,” he said. “But I love what I do … and the opportunity you have to make a difference every day.”