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Spokane’s legal strategy in Zehm case defended

Mon., May 24, 2010, 5:32 p.m.

The attorney trying to defend Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. spent a good portion of a hearing today defending the City of Spokane’s legal strategy for how it gathered information for the upcoming federal criminal trail based upon the fatal confrontation with Otto Zehm.

Attorney Carl Oreskovich told a federal judge that no conflict exists with how he was hired by the city to represent Thompson in the $2.9 million civil suit and how he interviewed potential witnesses to prepare for the criminal trial, currently scheduled for June 2, where Thompson faces the felony charges of using excessive force and lying to investigators.

“It’s the government’s job to show an actual or potential conflict,” Oreskovich said in court. “That has not been done. I would suggest to you that there is no conflict whatsoever.”

U.S. District Court Judge Philip Pro, a federal judge from Las Vegas appointed to decide the conflict issue, presided over the hearing by telephone. He said he would make a written ruling either later today or Tuesday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Durkin asked Pro to decide how to proceed after alleging in court records that Oreskovich used his position as special city attorney to gather information provided by confidential interviews conducted by Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi.

Durkin pointed out that Treppiedi and other city attorneys withdrew from the civil case only after federal prosecutors filed a motion alleging a conflict of interest about how they used their office to interview officers before and after they testified before a federal grand jury and passed that information about the criminal case onto Oreskovich.

“Unfortunately, that (withdrawal from the civil case) doesn’t resolve the taint,” Durkin said. “It’s one thing to allow the skunk in … but the smell remains.”

Durkin argued that the officers had or should have had the expectation that conversations with Treppiedi about the civil case would remain confidential. The conflict occurs if Oreskovich uses any of that information in the criminal trial regarding Thompson’s actions and statements following the March 18, 2006, confrontation with the mentally-ill janitor.

Pro asked Durkin how to fix the problem.

Beyond doing nothing and having the case proceed, Durkin suggested that one solution could be that every witness who met with Treppiedi could be asked to sign a waiver that essentially says that he or she is OK with the assistant city attorney passing on confidential information to Oreskovich. Or Pro could rule that Oreskovich cannot proceed as Thompson’s attorney, which would delay both the criminal trial and civil suit, which is currently on hold.

“We have attempted to be as transparent as we possibly can,” Oreskovich said.

Pro asked Oreskovich if he had a formal or informal “joint defense agreement with Treppiedi or others with regard to sharing information.”

“There certainly is a unaniminity of purpose with regard to the defense of the civil suit,” Oreskovich said, “but no joint agreement. Attorneys work on cases jointly all the time. The record before you clearly is that these witnesses did not believe I was representing them. They did not share confidences.”

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