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Sunday, September 20, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Stevens County prosecutor declines to grant commissioners immunity while county business remains in limbo

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 15, 2020

The Stevens County Courthouse in Colville is seen in January 2019.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
The Stevens County Courthouse in Colville is seen in January 2019. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

An attorney working for Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen has roundly rejected a request to grant the county commissioners temporary immunity from gross misdemeanor charges, while the parties continue to dispute whether the commissioners can hold office.

Rasmussen and his specially appointed deputy prosecutor, George Ahrend, contend the commissioners – Wes McCart, Steve Parker and Don Dashiell – lost their elected positions last month when a judge ruled against them and their bonding agencies, saying they had misspent more than $130,000 in taxpayer funds earmarked for homelessness assistance.

The commissioners, meanwhile, have refused to surrender their positions unless a judge sides with Rasmussen’s interpretation of the law. The governor’s office and the Stevens County Republican Party, which would be tasked with filling any vacancies on the commission, have declined to start the appointment process without a judge’s order.

The judge presiding over the case, Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno, is expected to return from vacation Monday, and the next hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 25. The wait for clarity has resulted in a stalemate, with both sides expressing concern about logjams in county spending and other business that requires commissioners’ approval, including the distribution of federal coronavirus aid to small businesses.

“There is an orderly legal procedure for continuity of government if they step down, but by insisting on their right to retain office they are interfering with that procedure, at least until we are able to obtain a court order compelling them to step down,” Ahrend said Tuesday in an email to The Spokesman-Review.

An attorney for the commissioners, Alison Turnbull, sent a letter to Ahrend on Sept. 4 requesting immunity from prosecution until the next court hearing so the county can continue carrying out business.

Rasmussen contends he has never threatened to prosecute the commissioners, although he has repeatedly pointed to a state law that says anyone who unlawfully refuses to surrender public office “shall be guilty of a gross misdemeanor.”

Ahrend wrote that Rasmussen, specifically, would not charge the commissioners. But Ahrend, as a special prosecutor contracted with Rasmussen’s office, did not rule out the possibility of pursuing charges himself.

“Mr. Rasmussen voluntarily recused himself as to any criminal violations that Mssrs. Parker, Dashiell, and McCart may have committed that relate in any way to their unconstitutional gifts of public funds,” Ahrend wrote. “No prosecuting attorney may grant immunity prospectively for crimes to be committed in the future.”

If all three commissioners are forced out of office before the November election, the Stevens County Republican Party would nominate three people for each commission seat. Gov. Jay Inslee would select two commissioners from those lists, and those two would select a third.

Parker was on his way out of office before the last court ruling, coming in third in a five-way primary behind Republican Greg Young and independent Malcolm Friedman. McCart, meanwhile, trounced his only primary challenger, Democrat Mike Bell, with nearly 72% of the vote.

Dashiell is not on the ballot this year. His term was scheduled to last through 2022.

Even if he is deemed ineligible to serve the rest of his term, McCart may return as a commissioner in January if he wins the general election. He could face difficulty securing another public official bond, which is a requirement of the office.

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