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Center for Justice, nonprofit law firm in Spokane that fought for police accountability and environmental cleanup, to close permanently

March 17, 2020 Updated Tue., March 17, 2020 at 6:59 p.m.

The Center for Justice, a Spokane nonprofit law firm that pushed for police accountability, open access to public records and cleanup of the Spokane River, will permanently close next week.

Dainen Penta, the organization’s executive director, announced the closure in a post on the group’s Facebook page on Tuesday afternoon. It is effective March 24, and the center will not be accepting new legal clients.

Finding sustainable funding for the Center for Justice has been difficult, Penta said in an interview. He said seeking state and federal grant money would come with strings attached, including limitations on the types of legal work they could do, that Penta wasn’t comfortable with.

“We’ve not been an organization that’s pursued federal funding or state funding, and that’s freed us up to do a lot of work that’s so desperately needed,” Penta, who took over operations of the center at the beginning of 2019, said.

The organization’s legal filings with the IRS show revenues halved in fiscal year 2018, from $1.3 million to less than $730,000. The organization also posted expenses greater than revenues for the year, running at a deficit of about $62,000.

Rick Eichstaedt, the center’s executive director from 2013 to 2018, called its closure “a tragic loss for Spokane.” Finding ongoing funding for the nonprofit has always been difficult, he said.

“Because the center often engages in controversial work, it has always been a challenge to fundraise,” Eichstaedt said. “It may be easy to fund the Symphony, it may be easy to fund programs that benefit animals. It can be very difficult to fund things that are protecting our environment, or are calling for social justice.”

The Center for Justice was founded in 1999 by Jim Sheehan, a local public defender who set up the organization with an inheritance left by his aunt. Sheehan also owns the Community Building, where the Center for Justice is housed on the east edge of downtown.

Eichstaedt, who joined the Center for Justice in the mid-2000s before being named its executive director, credited Sheehan for envisioning an organization he said was unlike any other legal organization in the region.

Lawyers at the Center for Justice represented the estate of Otto Zehm, a developmentally challenged man who was beaten to death by a Spokane Police officer. The organization’s Riverkeeper program has pushed efforts to reduce pollution into the Spokane River. Eichstaedt in 2017 represented a coalition of diversity-minded organizations that successfully removed from the Spokane ballot a measure that would have allowed police officers to inquire about people’s citizenship.

“I don’t think you’re going to find in any community, one organization that does all of that,” Eichstaedt said.

The center also employed lawyers who assisted low-income clients with paying court-ordered fines, resolving housing issues and returning suspended driver’s licenses. Those services may not have garnered as many headlines as other actions taken by the center, said Paul Dillon, president of its board of directors. But they are important to continue, Dillon said, and the board is actively looking for new homes for those services.

“We’ve still got cases, and the need is there now more than ever,” Dillon said.

Discussions between the Center for Justice and other area nonprofits are ongoing, Penta said, but there are no confirmed partnerships yet.

Spokane Riverkeeper will continue its work, said Jerry White Jr., who serves as the organization’s head. The group will find a new home and will likely spin off as its own nonprofit following the folding of the Center for Justice, White said.

“The message I want to send to the public is to expect our work to continue,” White said. “Please engage with us, because really nothing’s going to change.”

Riverkeeper has been involved both in discussions at the state level regarding a potential changing in the timeline for meeting new federal standards for pollutants in the Spokane River, as well as the effort underway nationally to revert those federal standards back to a level that was opposed by native tribes concerned about fish consumption.

The decision to close the center is a difficult one, Penta said. But he added the closure did not mean work should cease in Spokane to push for social justice.

“I think it’s time for a lot of different individuals and organizations to figure out how to support this kind of work,” Penta said. “Remember that it’s not the duty of any one organization to call out injustice.”

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