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Spokane County ex-public defender accused of meth use represented hundreds of clients

UPDATED: Mon., Jan. 22, 2018

From the moment Emily Blumenauer met her court-appointed public defender, she knew something was off.

There was the arm scratching, the forgetfulness, the shiny glaze on her eyes that suggested she was “not all there.” Looking back, she said the signs were obvious.

Her suspicions about her Spokane County public defender, Kendra Allen-Grant, appeared to be vindicated last year when Allen-Grant was arrested and charged with possession of methamphetamine. During her last several months working as a public defender, she represented more than 200 clients.

Blumenauer, a 35-year-old who now lives in Salem, Oregon, said she met with Allen-Grant periodically in 2016 to discuss strategy over the many months her case was active in Spokane County District Court. Blumenauer always was adamant of her innocence, but she said her attorney was more interested in cutting a deal with the prosecution.

On Dec. 13, 2016 – eight months after she was accused of assaulting her ex-husband’s mother during a custody exchange with her children – they did just that. She signed a diversion agreement that stipulated charges would be dismissed if she met formal terms and conditions.

There would be no trial in a court of law – no opportunity to argue her innocence. Instead, she paid the fines, took anger management classes and, for half a year, regretted it all. She said she wanted to fight the case but had no faith Allen-Grant was prepared to fight for her.

“I feel like she should have come to me on Dec. 13, and said ‘I have this case down,’ ” she said. “But she didn’t.”

Allen-Grant resigned in June and was arrested and charged with possession of methamphetamine a month later.

She was arrested again three months later in October at a grocery store with a bag full of a “white crystal-like substance” in her pocket, according to court records. Both cases are still pending in Spokane County Superior Court.

For months, her alleged use of meth while representing clients as a county public defender was an open secret among friends and co-workers at the Spokane County Courthouse campus, where she worked for five years as a misdemeanor lawyer – a high-stress job that often entails juggling hundreds of cases at a time.

Now, separated from the case and with some perspective, Blumenauer wonders if and how much her attorney’s drug abuse was a factor in the case’s outcome.

“If this happened to me, I wonder if it’s happened to other people,” she said. “I’m scared it’s happened on a pretty regular basis.”

An open secret

Blumenauer had her suspicions. But friends and coworkers say from at least the summer of 2016 through January 2017 – all while she was representing hundreds of low-level defendants in Spokane County – Allen-Grant was using meth.

It was a few months after her first arrest that signs of her addiction were broadcast to the world. On Facebook, she posted nonsensical phrases, often paranoid, telling friends she was in Malibu, that Lady Gaga was in jail and the singer needed her help posting bail.

Each message was followed by an outpouring of support from her friends and family. Many are from her mother, pleading with her to get checked into treatment.

On Twitter, she has gone on hourslong tirades or tweeted multiple times in a row about celebrities as if they’re close personal friends. She sometimes posts unflattering pictures of herself that show scabs and sores on her face.

Despite multiple attempts, Allen-Grant could not be reached for comment on this story. Her phone is no longer working and she apparently is not in Spokane County.

On Jan. 4, a warrant for her arrest was issued when she failed to make a hearing on Dec. 29, 2017.

Early last year, she took a leave of absence and checked into treatment, her friends said. She returned to work for a few weeks, then left in March. She officially quit her job in June. On her voluntary resignation form, she wrote she was leaving “in part due to work-related stress.”

“I am unhappy with some of the decisions made by management in the Public Defender’s Office,” she wrote. “This is a voluntary resignation due to health concerns.”

Thomas Krzyminski, director of the public defender’s office, did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking comment. He instead directed inquiries to county human resources officials, who did not respond to interview requests.

A records request for public defenders’ office emails turned up no mention of discipline of Allen-Grant.

A few months after leaving her job, her addiction appeared to worsen, despite being charged twice for felony possession.

When she was arrested July 30 on a possession charge, she was released soon after on her own recognizance. But she failed to show up for a hearing, so a warrant was triggered and she was arrested again on Oct. 10 at Huckleberry’s Natural Market near her apartment on the lower South Hill.

She was able to secure bail for $1,000 on Oct. 24, after spending her birthday behind bars. But in November, her family and friends believe she hopped on a plane to Southern California, despite specific court orders that forbid her from leaving the county and state.

While a public defender, Allen-Grant was personally responsible for the outcome of hundreds of cases a year, many of them simple assault cases like Blumenauer’s. Attorneys at the office say misdemeanor work – not unlike felony work – can be grueling and tiresome.

Her co-workers, who wished to keep their identity a secret so as to not face retaliation from their superiors, said they were heartbroken to see their friend and co-worker turn toward meth as a way to cope.

A stressful occupation

Attorneys turning to substance abuse to cope with the stresses of the job isn’t a new or surprising phenomenon, legal experts say.

Brooks Holland, a law professor at Gonzaga University School of Law and a former public defender with 24 years of experience, said misdemeanor work is one of the most grueling in the profession, with long hours, late nights and hundreds of cases to track on trial calendars.

Unlike some other high-stress professions, lawyers are held to a strict duty of confidentiality, Holland said, which often means they can’t vent to a loved one after a hard day at work. So a minority instead turn to substances to fill that gap.

“Without appropriate resources or support networks, lawyers can be pushed to other ways to deal with that stress, anxiety, frustration and burnout,” Holland said. “Historically, it was some lawyers spending too much time at the bar, for happy hours, or adding liquid lunches to their routine.”

According to the American Bar Association’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs’ latest national report, alcoholism was far and away the most abused substance. About 1 percent of substance abuse among lawyers involves meth.

Still, the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health report on substance abuse of illicit drugs ranked professional services, including the legal profession, ninth out of 19 industries.

In Washington, lawyers can access the Washington State Bar Association Member Wellness Program, a network of health professionals who assist in self-care and mental health, family issues and substance abuse, among other services.

But Holland said there’s an “ethos” to public defender work, a spirit of “we can take it” that has the unintended side effect of unchecked addiction and burnout.

“It’s a tough ethos for asking for help,” he said. “It’s tough to say, ‘Today, I can’t handle it, please help me.’ ”

‘I suspected meth’

Blumenauer wants another shot. When she was cited on April 17, 2016, for assault, she maintains it was in the midst of a nasty and sometimes violent custody battle with her ex-husband.

But throughout the process, she said, she was left in the dark. Decisions were made that she didn’t agree with. All the while, the case worked its way through court as it inched closer to a trial date.

It’s not uncommon for attorneys to limit communication with their clients while they wait for the state’s evidence to come in through discovery. Multiple attorneys in the public defender’s office said with the high amount of cases they’re juggling at once, some cases will naturally take precedent over others – usually those that show clear flaws in the state’s evidence, or higher-profile cases.

Still, Blumenauer said she felt like she couldn’t depend on her attorney. She said she wasn’t confident Allen-Grant was doing everything she could to challenge the state’s evidence.

“I didn’t feel like I could rely on her because of her issue that was going on,” she said. “I couldn’t trust her judgment on this.”

Blumenauer noticed in April the signs of drug abuse.

“She was scratching her arm and she wasn’t all there,” she remembered.

She said Allen-Grant was forgetful, disheveled and scatter-brained. By December 2016, the signs were like billboards.

“I suspected meth,” she said. “Kendra is a sweetheart, she’s a good person, but she has a problem.”

On Dec. 13, Blumenauer agreed to the diversion agreement, which stipulated if she accepted certain conditions, the charges would be dropped at the end of two years.

“I just did what my attorney told me to do,” she said. “It’s been a very terrible process.”

Attorney misconduct

Between Jan. 1, 2016, and when she formally resigned last June, Allen-Grant was responsible for 261 cases, her office confirmed.

Holland, the Gonzaga law professor, said in the event an attorney is suspected of substance abuse while representing clients, there are three categories of possible fallout: professional and ethical consequences brought by the state against the attorney, the legal consequences of clients who were represented by the attorney challenging the findings of their cases, and ancillary legal consequences of clients suing the attorney for relief.

The first two are more likely. To sue a former attorney and win, Holland said, one would need to prove both that the lawyer’s drug abuse resulted in incompetent representation and that the evidence is on their side – in other words, that they’re innocent.

Blumenauer’s case is still active. In October 2017, Allen-Grant was removed as her attorney. She’s now being represented by private defense attorney Joe Kuhlman. As recently as Jan. 10 of this year, Kuhlman filed motions for discovery.

When reached by phone, Kuhlman wouldn’t confirm whether he is pushing for lawyer misconduct, saying it would be “inappropriate for a defense attorney to comment on a case,” but he said he is “actively looking at all remedies.”

Allen-Grant still has an active license in Washington to practice law, and she has no public disciplinary history, according to the Washington State Bar Association.

Robert Aronson, a University of Washington law professor, said one of the most prevalent situations for lawyer misconduct is the abuse of alcohol and narcotics, which he said often results in missed deadlines and poor communication with clients, the opposing counsel and courts.

“The chances that an attorney on meth while representing a client will ‘drop the ball’ in one way or another, even without financial misconduct, is extremely likely,” he wrote over email. “It is indisputable that the use of meth clouds one’s judgment.”

Washington law dictates public defenders should not exceed 400 misdemeanor cases a year, or 300 if they are case-weighted – a system that assigns time values to cases based on amount of time that is typically required to provide effective representation.

Active on social media

It’s been nine months since Allen-Grant has practiced law. Since quitting her job, she’s been living on disability, according to court records.

On Facebook, she admits to driving after staying up for days at a time. She tweets about meeting random people in the dead of the night, and sometimes she says she’s sorry.

“I realized tonight just how reckless and selfish I have been in my drug use,” she wrote on Oct. 27. “I see now why my good friends and family have felt the need to remove themselves from my life. I’m going through a crisis and I decided tonight I’m going to finally make the call for help.”

Most comments are supportive or relieved to see her in moments of clarity. But then days later she can revert to paranoia.

“Lady Gaga is in jail and you are all involved,” she wrote on Facebook on Nov. 1.

Her last post on social media was on Dec. 4, when she posted a pink picture with flowers, the text reading “she wants to wait.” On Twitter, the same day and from Los Angeles according to the geotag, “I learned how important my past is to my future.”

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