Larry Haskell earned The Spokesman-Review’s endorsement for Spokane County prosecutor in part because of his pledge to better explain his decisions and make the workings of his office more transparent than predecessor Steve Tucker had.
The timeout he’s called on the county’s relationship with BounceBack Inc. is a good start: Reconsideration is overdue.
Spokane County, like many other counties in Washington and other states, contracts with BounceBack to collect on bad checks written to area merchants. Check writers receive letters warning them they will be prosecuted if they do not make good on the checks, pay a $40 processing fee, and attend an $80 money-management class.
The letters are written on county letterhead and, in Spokane County, had Tucker’s face and endorsement. The county gets $5 out of every processing fee paid; all of $688 this year.
Supporters of the arrangement with BounceBack say the minuscule return to the county is beside the point, which is the benefit to merchants that get paid for their goods and services. For BounceBack, the county contract allows the company to avoid being classified as a collection agency, which would subject them to more rigorous regulatory oversight.
The deal has withstood past legal challenges in U.S. District Court here, but another case is pending. The Washington attorney general’s office also has given its blessing.
But the American Bar Association has raised a red flag, and justly so, because in its role as enforcer in the collection process, what is missing is any finding of guilt, or any prosecutorial review of the business claims whatsoever. The city of Spokane’s red light program at least has officers sign off on tickets before they are forwarded to a private company for collection.
A quick finding of guilt or innocence in a case of check-bouncing cannot be done so expediently. Haskell should use the pending expiration of the BounceBack contract to reassess the degree to which his office wants to lend its weight to what are essentially civil actions against those who write bad checks. He can start by keeping his face, if not his name, off BounceBack’s letters.
He might consider, too, why the county should be associated with a BounceBack requirement that alleged violators take its money management courses. Others provide that service, too, and for free.
The state of Oregon was so troubled by the ethical issues posed by the use of services like BounceBack that its Legislature ended its check enforcement program.
If the county is going to continue its role as intermediary in the collection of bad checks, Haskell should be cautious about letting third parties invoke the power of his office to prosecute a crime where there has been no official finding a crime has been committed.
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