Spokane County’s new prosecutor will briefly end a long-standing and controversial deal with a Missouri company that uses the office’s letterhead to target bad-check writers.
But Prosecutor-elect Larry Haskell said he believes there’s value in the program and he wants to continue the partnership once he has staff in place to address ethical concerns. The county’s contract with the company, BounceBack Inc., will expire next month.
“I’m not opposed to getting back in the program,” Haskell said last week. “What we do need to make sure of is we’re working within professional standards.”
BounceBack has promoted its services using the face and endorsement of Haskell’s predecessor, Steve Tucker, for most of the 13 years the company has had a contract with the county. Many counties in Washington use BounceBack, which has not legally been classified as a collection agency but cooperates with prosecutors and businesses to receive payment on bad checks.
Tucker defended the partnership in courts, saying it served a public good by diverting low-level cases away from the courts and putting a portion of fees the offenders pay to BounceBack in county coffers.
But a recent finding by the American Bar Association called such agreements unethical, giving the new administration at the county courthouse pause.
“My understanding is that the program has been less effective than it was at one time, even at collecting money,” Haskell said.
‘A bad choice’
In March 2008, Jeff Landfried wrote a check for $20.85 at a local Safeway. He knew at the time he didn’t have the money in his account, but hoped his paycheck would cover it.
“It was a bad choice I had made,” Landfried says now. “I thought my check would clear.”
It didn’t, and Safeway asked for payment of the check and a penalty fee. Landfried didn’t have that cash either and still didn’t pay. In July 2008, he received what he thought was a letter from the Prosecutor’s Office.
“I saw the letterhead, and I thought, ‘I better have some kind of an attorney,’ ” Landfried said.
In reality, the letter was sent by BounceBack. It offered Landfried the opportunity to avoid “possible criminal prosecution” – written in capital letters atop the page – by paying the check amount, a $40 processing fee and $80 to sign up for a one-time class on money management. Similar letters have been delivered to debtors in Spokane County as recently as this year, with the county collecting $5 out of the $40 processing fee from BounceBack.
When Landfried sued the county and BounceBack in federal court in 2009, the prosecutor’s office was making about $2,400 a year in fees from the program.
That suit is not the only time Landfried has taken the county to task for what he deemed unfair punishment. Last year, he unsuccessfully argued against having a camera installed on his car, in addition to an interlocking device, after a DUI arrest and conviction.
According to records provided by the prosecutor’s office in a public record request to The Spokesman-Review, the BounceBack agreement has taken in an average of about $1,000 annually since 2011. This year, it has collected just $688.
The Prosecutor’s Office operates on a budget of about $11 million.
Haskell said businesses benefit most from the program, not the Prosecutor’s Office.
“It’s very valuable to the business community,” he said.
Landfried was questioned by attorneys under oath, as was Tucker. But the case eventually was dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge Edward Shea, who’d previously thrown out a similar lawsuit targeting BounceBack by an area debtor.
Shea ruled that BounceBack was not collecting debts directly, instead profiting from a processing fee and money paid to attend a one-time instructional course on budgeting. Shea said the company’s partnership with the Prosecutor’s Office served an official function of government: to dissuade the writing of bad checks and offer alternative resolution options aside from criminal prosecution.
“And the (program) does more than simply collect debts owed to merchants as restitution: it serves an important rehabilitative function by teaching check writers how to manage their debt,” Shea wrote in his decision.
But Landfried called the course he took, for which he paid the $80, “the most worthless class I have ever attended.” He said he knew how to balance a checkbook before he attended; he’d just made an error many others also may make.
An appeal was filed, but Landfried had no money to pay his attorney and eventually the case became too costly to continue.
Falling ‘short of their higher calling’
Though the federal courts and the Washington Attorney General’s office have said such agreements pass legal muster, there are concerns in the legal profession about whether it’s ethical.
Last month, the American Bar Association issued a formal opinion saying agreements allowing the leasing of letterhead from a prosecutor to a debt collection agency violate professional codes.
“Occasionally, practices have taken hold in prosecutors’ offices that, while driven by budgetary exigencies, fall short of their higher calling,” the opinion says.
The opinion does not list BounceBack by name, nor does it address the legal distinction that courts have made classifying the company not as a debt collection agency but as an intermediary in the payback process. That distinction has allowed BounceBack to repeatedly fight off legal challenges, like Landfried’s, and earn a seal of approval from the Washington state Attorney General’s Office.
The bar association’s ethical decision says a partnership between a company like BounceBack and a prosecutor’s office would only violate professional standards if prosecutors did not review a case before a letter was sent to a debtor. Haskell seized upon that portion of the opinion in saying he’d like to see the agreement continue.
“I’m very interested in, if you will, fixing the problem and making sure we’re in compliance,” Haskell said.
In spite of the legal and ethical arguments supporting the partnership, Landfried said he wishes he’d have been able to do more to end what he calls a questionable alliance.
“I felt like I didn’t get any closure on it,” Landfried said.
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