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Taxpayers won’t foot bill for Stevens County commissioners’ legal defense, judge rules

UPDATED: Mon., Feb. 3, 2020

The Stevens County Courthouse in Colville is seen in this January 2019 photo. A man detained at the border crossing near Northport had his criminal drug convictions erased by the Washington Supreme Court on Thursday, after justices said his rights were violated by federal agents. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
The Stevens County Courthouse in Colville is seen in this January 2019 photo. A man detained at the border crossing near Northport had his criminal drug convictions erased by the Washington Supreme Court on Thursday, after justices said his rights were violated by federal agents. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

The Stevens County commissioners will have to pay for their own attorney in a lawsuit that accuses them of misspending taxpayer money.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno on Friday ruled the commissioners aren’t entitled to a lawyer at public expense.

Moreno also declined to dismiss the suit, in which Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen accuses the commissioners of misspending more than $121,000 from a fund dedicated to fighting homelessness.

The state auditor’s office determined a year ago the expenditures constituted “unallowable gifts of public funds.”

Rasmussen said Moreno’s decision means the commissioners – Wes McCart, Don Dashiell and Steve Parker – will have to submit to depositions.

“This judgment follows the law as I have believed it to be,” Rasmussen said in an email. “I do not know if the commissioners will appeal, but I am confident that an appellate court will come to the same conclusion as (Moreno) did if the commissioners file an appeal.”

In November, Moreno declined Rasmussen’s request to hold the commissioners in contempt. At the time, Rasmussen argued the commissioners had violated a prior ruling by attempting to authorize the county to reimburse them for attorney fees.

During a meeting in May, the commissioners recused themselves one at a time while the seated commissioners passed resolutions, indemnifying each other and authorizing the county to pay for their legal defense.

The commissioners have argued they were acting within their official capacity when they approved the payments from the county’s homelessness fund. Elements of the case hinge on whether they are treated as individuals or actors of a sovereign government.

The homelessness fund consists of surcharges that people pay when they record documents such as property deeds. It is supposed to pay for services such as shelters and low-income housing programs.

The amount in dispute includes more than $30,000 that went to a couple whose home was damaged by historic flooding in 2018, and nearly $91,000 given to two nonprofits that used it to build a transitional home for people with spinal cord injuries.

Moreno has yet to rule on the legality of those expenditures, though the state auditor’s office deemed them improper in a report in February 2019.

Rasmussen is seeking to hold the commissioners personally liable for the homelessness funds by collecting from their personal finances and their public official bonds – a type of insurance policy that pays governments up to a fixed amount when an official fails to “faithfully perform” his or her duties.

In a phone call Monday, Commissioner Dashiell said he was disappointed by Judge Moreno’s decision and insisted the payments from the homelessness fund were appropriate.

“She said we don’t have immunity, personally, for decisions we made as a board,” Dashiell said. “It just keeps us from doing our business and makes us question every decision we make in the future, wondering if someone might sue us over our decision.”

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