The public is about to get its hands on records that will show how $2 million was spent to defend two murder defendants in Yakima County.
The Washington state Supreme Court recently issued a unanimous ruling in favor of the Yakima Herald-Republic newspaper’s long and costly quest to pry the records out of the hands of officials in Yakima County and its court system.
The public wins a huge victory in this case because it once again says that when the public is paying for legal fees, the public has a right to see how its dollars are being spent.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should.
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This newspaper traveled this course several years ago when Olympian reporters requested copies of the fees charged by attorneys representing former Prosecutor Ed Holm and the county against hostile work environment allegations by attorneys in Holm’s office.
The county refused to let the public see how its dollars were being spent.
The Olympian in conjunction with Allied Daily Newspaper executive director Rowland Thompson, and former Rep. Brendan Williams, D-Olympia, in 2007 passed a law making it clear that when the public is footing the legal bill, the public gets to have access to those billing records. Williams said it was a matter of transparency.
In The Olympian’s case it was the bill for attorneys hired to defend Holm and the county — a case that the county ultimately lost. Thurston County’s insurer ended up cutting a check for $3.475 million and abandoned further appeals of the jury’s 2006 verdict that three former Thurston County prosecutors were forced to endure a hostile work environment and suffered retaliation after they complained about their treatment.
The Yakima case hinged on a 2005 criminal trial involving co-defendants Jose Luis Sanchez Jr. and Mario Gil Mendez, who are now serving lengthy prison sentences for the murder of a 21-year-old man and his 3-year-old daughter during a home invasion robbery in Yakima.
Taxpayer-funded defense costs in the case totaled $560,000 for Mendez and $1.5 million for Sanchez.
The Yakima Herald-Republic newspaper requested the billing records for the court-appointed attorneys but were denied by county attorneys, who argued that the records were sealed by a judge.
In the 9-0 ruling, the state jurists said court records are exempt from the state Public Records Act, but only when they are exclusively held by the courts. Court records held by other agencies, in this case Yakima County officials, are not exempt, the justices said.
Bob Crider, editor of the Yakima Herald-Republic, said, “Our argument was that the public, which paid for that defense, had a right to know how that money was spent. We’re hoping that this will lead to some more transparency, and that it will send a message to the legal system throughout the state that the Public Records Act cannot be ignored.”
“It’s a pretty major victory for open government,” said Michele Earl-Hubbard, lawyer for the newspaper which was awarded costs and attorney fees by the Supreme Court. “The court here has streamlined the process so that hopefully, in the future, the public can gain access to these records.”
Hubbard said once the sealing orders are lifted and the records are available to the public and the newspaper, financial penalties also might be available to the newspaper if some records were improperly withheld.
This ruling also will give the public a close look at how judges make decisions in approving attorney fees. Thanks to this ruling, the public will see what information the judge had in awarding fees and precisely how those dollars were spent.
As Earl-Hubbard said, “We’ll get to see how the process works. What did the judge see when he authorized the county to write the check for 2 million dollars?”
The high court rejected the newspaper’s argument that the billing records were administrative, rather than judicial, in nature, and it ruled that the trial court should determine whether the decision to seal the financial documents was proper. But the high court found that as a nonjudicial agency, the county violated the Public Records Act when it failed to release the documents.
This is a victory for right-to-know advocacy. The public had a right to know how the county’s money was used to defend former Prosecutor Ed Holm in Olympia and the two murder defendants in Yakima. Now the Legislature and the courts have made it clear that when the public is picking up the tab for attorney fees, the public gets to see how those dollars are spent.