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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A look at Rep. Matt Shea’s legal career: Recently laid off, he’s sued bad drivers and a state university

Washington state Rep. Matt Shea participates in a rally outside the Capitol in Olympia on Jan. 15, 2020. He’s one of many far-right politicians denouncing economic shutdowns prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ted Warren / AP)

Shortly after the Washington state House released a report concluding Rep. Matt Shea has engaged in domestic terrorism, the Spokane Valley lawmaker was quietly laid off from the law firm where he had worked since 2013.

Shea’s last day at M. Casey Law was Dec. 31. His employment there ended soon after he was expelled from the House Republican caucus and stripped of his legislative committee assignments.

In an email, attorney Marshall Casey said he’s downsizing his office and going into business with attorney Jim Sweetser, who served a term as Spokane County prosecutor in the 1990s.

“I’m in the process of that transition,” Casey wrote. “I needed to downsize my office for the transition and I let (Shea) and my assistant go. I may rehire my assistant through the transition of my office since I may need the help.”

Casey also is running for a seat on Washington’s Court of Appeals Division III against Tracy Staab, who is currently a Spokane Municipal Court judge. They are running to replace Judge Kevin Korsmo, who plans to retire from the appeals court at the end of the year.

Casey declined to say whether he had any concerns about the findings of the House-commissioned investigation or about Shea’s involvement in armed confrontations with federal agents, such as the 2016 standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.

Shea’s personal finance statements submitted to the Public Disclosure Commission show he had been earning between $24,000 and $47,999 per year from Casey’s firm – relatively little, for a lawyer. (The PDC form requires lawmakers to select income ranges, not give precise salary figures.) That’s on top of the $52,766 he makes as a legislator.

Shea’s registration with the Washington State Bar Association recently was updated to show he’s started a solo practice, the Law Office of Matthew T. Shea, specializing in nonprofit, civil rights and personal injury law. As usual, he didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.

Shea’s legal career has received little attention amid a constant drip of information about his other activities, like his promotion of a 51st state, his efforts to surveil progressive activists and Spokane City Council members and his behind-the-scenes prepping for a Christian holy war.

Before becoming a personal injury attorney, Shea served in the U.S. Army and the Army National Guard in Iraq, Kuwait and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Compared to other personal injury attorneys, he has handled few cases since he received his law degree from Gonzaga University in 2006 – perhaps because he has stayed busy as a lawmaker and as an influential figure in the far-right “patriot” movement.

A search for Casey’s name on the Washington state courts website shows he has served as a lawyer in 112 superior court cases since 2007.

A search for Shea’s name, meanwhile, turns up only 38 cases during the same period. And in two of those cases – his divorce from his first wife and a civil lawsuit in which he was accused of defaming a sheriff’s deputy – he was acting as a client, not a lawyer. He appears to have worked on only three federal cases.

Separately, in 2011, Shea was cited for firearms violations in Spokane Municipal Court after pulling a gun during a road-rage incident. The charges were later dismissed as part of a deal with prosecutors.

In his first case as a lawyer in Spokane County Superior Court, Shea assisted a more experienced attorney to sue a South Hill apartment complex and a playground manufacturer, seeking damages for a young girl who was injured when her swing broke.

The case was filed in March 2007, about 11 months before Shea announced his first bid for a House seat representing the 4th Legislative District.

Before joining Casey’s firm, Shea worked for personal injury attorney Keith Douglass, who declined to comment on Shea’s legal work. He also worked with Marshall Casey for several years at a firm run by Casey’s father.

Most of Shea’s cases appear typical. They include many claims for damages for clients injured in car crashes. In federal court, Shea and other attorneys once sued an excavation company after an employee inadvertently struck a power line and cut off electricity to a machining shop in Spokane Valley.

State lawmaker sued state university

One case stands out.

In fall 2017, Casey and Shea filed suit against Eastern Washington University – a state institution funded in part by Shea’s constituents. They represented a former student who alleged he had been wrongfully fired and had his free speech rights violated by EWU’s student newspaper, the Easterner. After more than a year of litigation, the university paid $55,000 to settle the case in early 2019.

The former student, Tanner Streicher, who is white, alleged he had been forced off the newspaper staff in 2014 after writing an opinion column criticizing the actions of black protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

“Why is it that the black community has its own set of problems? Wouldn’t the white, or any other, community have the same concerns or problems if one of their own was killed?” Streicher wrote. “In reality, they are treated the same – or even better in most cases – as white Americans. In the past 20 years African Americans have been treated very well in the United States.

“Just because a white officer killed an unarmed African American, all hell broke loose in Ferguson,” the column continued. “Local businesses mainly owned by white Americans do not deserve to be burned out and their property destroyed because the African American community feels they are being wronged.”

Attempts to reach Streicher for comment were unsuccessful.

He held the position of art director for the Easterner. The column – which appears to be his only piece of writing published in the Easterner – stirred intense backlash and prompted the newspaper staff to issue an apology.

Shortly after it was published, Gerald Hankerson, the president of the NAACP’s Alaska-Oregon-Washington conference, penned his own opinion piece for the Easterner, calling Streicher’s column a “work of propaganda,” an “unashamedly inaccurate” portrayal of African American history and “an attack on the African American community.”

“If oppression is a figment of the African American imagination, the countless marches and demonstrations of the civil rights movement and subsequent hard-won legislation for desegregation, voting rights, employment and fair housing were all trivial pursuits,” Hankerson wrote.

“Maybe Mr. Streicher fails to realize (and perhaps his university is failing to educate him) that as the protesters march in Ferguson, still today NAACP attorneys are challenging racial discrimination, including policies that affect children and college students.”

The backlash led to a falling-out between Streicher and the newspaper editors, with Streicher accusing his peers of withholding wages and retaliating against him for his views.

Streicher and his mother met with the editor in chief, who then suspended him, the lawsuit states. He showed up to a staff meeting anyway, and the paper’s faculty adviser, Gary Graham, ordered him to leave and threatened to call security. Graham also was the editor in chief of The Spokesman-Review at the time.

The lawsuit alleged EWU and the individual defendants “deliberately made working conditions intolerable by trying to force (Streicher) to ‘consideration for others’ and ‘reeducation’ counseling for merely stating his opinion in an editorial piece.” Streicher “was ‘counseled’ on multiple occasions regarding his differing viewpoints expressed in the editorial and when he refused to apologize was summarily suspended.”

EWU attempted to resolve the disputes through mediation, and in February 2017 – more than two years after Streicher’s last day with the Easterner – the university sent him a letter agreeing to pay about $2,100 he claimed he was owed.

According to the lawsuit, the letter stated, “Although the editor of the Easterner contested that you did not work all of the hours for which you requested pay, we have decided to pay you the full amount for the hours that you have claimed are due.”

Streicher did not cash the check. According to the lawsuit, it “appeared to be a settlement check since it maintained dispute on whether or not the hours were worked.”

His attorneys filed suit that fall, first in Spokane County Superior Court before transferring it to federal court. The final settlement agreement, signed in January 2019, provided $55,000 – about $2,100 of which “shall be treated as wages” for tax purposes.

Casey’s name appears before Shea’s in court filings, indicating Casey was the lead attorney. Casey did not respond to an emailed question about the extent of Shea’s involvement in the case.

It is unusual for a Washington state lawmaker to sue a state institution.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs – an attorney who has been a target of Shea’s efforts to surveil local progressive leaders – said he was surprised to learn of Shea’s involvement in the EWU case. Beggs viewed it as a potential conflict of interest because Shea, as a lawmaker, has some fiduciary responsibility to the university.

“You can’t represent someone against an entity you owe duties to,” Beggs said.

As both an attorney and an elected official, Beggs said neither he nor his law firm handle any cases against the city of Spokane.

He said he pulled out of several lawsuits against the city when he became a lawyer for the Spokane Police Department ombudsman in 2015, and a year later, when he was appointed to the City Council, he recused himself from some closed-door council meetings because he had privileged information about ongoing cases he had previously worked on.

To defend against Streicher’s lawsuit, EWU was represented by the state attorney general’s office. There is no indication in court filings that state attorneys raised concern about Shea’s involvement in the case.

Brionna Aho, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said the office can’t publicly discuss its legal strategy.

Gonzaga law professor Brooks Holland, an expert on legal ethics and professionalism, did not make any conclusions about Shea’s involvement in the EWU case, but said several Washington court ethics rules apply to practicing attorneys who hold public office.

For example, Holland said, a lawyer can’t represent a client if his interests as a lawmaker might cause him to “pull punches” when pursuing a claim against a state institution. Conversely, a lawyer-legislator might “punch too hard,” or pursue certain claims too aggressively, to further his own political agenda at his client’s expense.

“We don’t want lawyers’ interest to third parties – the Legislature or the state or themselves – to become the governing motive for how to make important judgments and decisions for clients, rather than the interests and objectives the client has in the representation,” Holland said. “That’s the general concern.”

When those types of potential conflicts arise, however, a client still can consent to representation if the attorney discloses and explains the issue, Holland said. Attorneys are expected to “self-regulate” to avoid those types of problems, he said.

Outside of the judiciary, legislators are governed by Washington’s Ethics in Public Service Act, which states: “No state officer or state employee may have an interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect, or engage in a business or transaction or professional activity, or incur an obligation of any nature, that is in conflict with the proper discharge of the state officer’s or state employee’s official duties.”

The Legislative Ethics Board, which reviews complaints against members of both the House and Senate, has not heard any cases in which a lawmaker has sued the state on behalf of a private client.

But a 1988 advisory opinion by the former House Board of Legislative Ethics posed the hypothetical question: “Is it unethical conduct if a member, who is an attorney, or the member’s law firm, brings an action on behalf of a client against the state of Washington for tortious actions or for contract violations?”

The board answered that “the facts in this hypothetical question do not reveal a violation of any ethical rules.” However, the board urged any lawyer-legislator suing the state “to exercise caution, because a member’s private business relationship with a state agency official carries with it a risk of violating, or creating an appearance of violating, various ethical rules.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, to correct when Shea began working at M. Casey Law. He previously worked for several years at a firm run by Marshall Casey’s father. The story also was updated to reflect that Casey is running for a seat on the appeals court.