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Lawyer defends roles in Zehm cases

The attorney defending Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. spent a good portion of a hearing Monday defending the city of Spokane’s legal strategy.

The attorney, Carl Oreskovich, told a federal judge that no conflict exists between his roles defending Thompson on criminal charges stemming from a fatal confrontation with mentally ill janitor Otto Zehm and his work representing Thompson in a $2.9 million civil suit. Oreskovich discussed how he interviewed potential witnesses for both proceedings.

Thompson faces felony charges of using excessive force and lying to investigators. The criminal trial is set for June 2 in federal court.

“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, of Las Vegas, appointed to decide the conflict issue, presided over the hearing by telephone. He said he would make a written ruling today.

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 interviewed officers before and after they testified before a federal grand jury and passed that information about the criminal case to 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 expected 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 Zehm.

Pro asked Durkin how to fix the problem.

Beyond doing nothing and having the case proceed, Durkin suggested 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 unanimity 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.”