EPHRATA — Grant County Prosecutor D. Angus Lee apparently violated state conflict of interest rules in his handling of cases he assigned to a prosecutor in his office who was also a political rival, the investigative arm of the Washington State Bar Association says.
Lee could face a reprimand or suspension of his law license, according to a letter by the bar’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
The Feb. 14 letter recommends the bar’s review committee to order a public hearing on the matter and examines three cases in which the prosecutor asked his deputy prosecutor Albert Lin to review criminal cases. When Lin declined to review them because of the conflicts, Lee disciplined him, the letter said. Both men ran for prosecutor to finish the one year remaining on a term in 2009, and again for a four-year term in 2010. Lee, who was initially appointed by Grant County Commissioners, won both elections.
In an email to The Wenatchee World responding to questions about the letter, Lee said “I strongly disagree with both the factual assertions and the legal analysis contained in the letter.”
And, he wrote, “The letter ignores or does not discuss relevant facts and controlling legal authority, and I look forward to having the review committee address this matter.”
The Feb. 14 letter is like a finding of probable cause that Lee violated ethics standards for lawyers, said John Strait, a Seattle University associate professor of law who has served on several law ethics advisory committees and is considered an expert in the field.
Strait said elected prosecutors almost never face discipline, especially while in office, although some deputy prosecutors have been disciplined.
“It’s very unusual. I cannot think of another disciplinary case of this magnitude that has gotten this far against a sitting prosecuting attorney,” Strait said.
He said only the state Supreme Court can suspend a lawyer, but if it gets that far, Lee would not be able to work as a prosecutor during his suspension.
The letter, signed by the bar’s senior disciplinary counsel Christine Gray, says it appears from the bar’s investigation that Lee “knew or should have known” about the conflicts.
“Although there appears to have been little or no effect on prosecutorial decisions,” the letter says, “there appears to have been actual injury to Mr. Lin in the anxiety and resources he expended in hiring personal lawyers to assist him in resisting Mr. Lee’s continued pressure to participate in cases in which Mr. Lin had a conflict of interest. The presumptive sanction thus appears to be reprimand or suspension,” it states.
In his email to The World, Lee included an unredacted version of the letter, which said, “Lee asserts that he only asked Mr. Lin to ‘review’ the matter, not to make a charging decision.” The disciplinary counsel said, however, “For purposes of our analysis, this distinction makes no difference.”
After reading a copy of the bar’s letter, Strait said prosecutors regularly come up against conflicts, and should know when to refer a case to another county, or the state Attorney General’s Office.
“Most offices would have avoided all of this by simply assigning the case out,” he said, adding, “We’re not talking rocket science here. We’re talking about a pretty fundamental conflict of interest that virtually any prosecuting attorney would be aware of.
Lin, who was fired shortly after the 2010 election, said he thinks Lee’s actions may have also cost him the election.
He said he was unable to make it to a debate directly because of one of Lee’s disciplinary actions, and was constantly subjected to a hostile work environment.
“I’ve already gone on record saying previously that he was asking me to do things that were unethical and wrong,” he said.
He said he tried to call attention during the election to Lee’s “repeated pattern of conduct which really calls into question his fitness for this position. He’s supposed to uphold the law and not abuse authority,” he said.
Lin said the bar’s investigation speaks for itself, but added, “This has been going on a long time, and I think the truth is finally coming out.”
The investigation says that cases he was asked to review include:
A criminal complaint against Cathleen Neils, accused of false reporting for calling police about an anti-harassment violation. Neils was a prosecutor’s administrative assistant for 17 years who was fired by Lee and who was suing the county for wrongful termination. Neils publicly opposed Lee’s appointment, and Lee had previously filed his own criminal complaint against her claiming that she took leave without turning in leave slips.
A criminal complaint against another person accused of perjury, made by the same person accusing Neils of anti-harassment. Lin said due to ties with the Neils case, he could not review it.
A traffic accident involving Grant County District Court Judge Richard Fitterer, who police say sideswiped a vehicle in Quincy. Attorneys from the prosecutor’s office regularly appear before him.
There was insufficient evidence to prove a cover-up or attempt to influence any investigation of Fitterer’s accident, the bar’s disciplinary counsel said.
The letter is in response to a grievance against filed more than two years ago by former Grant County Sheriff’s deputy Daniel Couture.
Couture complained that Lee had a conflict of interest in handling a police report on Neils, and that Lee covered up his knowledge of Fritterer’s traffic accident.
Judy Berrett, spokeswoman for the Washington State Bar Association, said the letter is not public information at this point, but the association cannot prevent people who are not lawyers from releasing it. The Wenatchee World received a version of the letter from a source who did not want to be identified because they have dealings with Grant County. When asked about the letter, parts of which bar investigators had redacted at Lee’s request, the prosecutor then provided an unredacted version.
Berrett said the state bar would make information about the complaint public if the disciplinary board’s review committee either orders a hearing, or orders an admonition be issued.
She said conflict of interest rules are among several rules of professional conduct under which lawyers must operate in order to practice law in Washington, and the Bar Association is in charge of reviewing complaints.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512