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Why did Thurston’s chief criminal prosecutor resign? Complaint alleges conflict of interest

Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim on Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecuting Attorney’s resignation

Jeffery Lippert, who was serving as Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Thurston County, submitted his resignation to Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim Aug. 4.
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Jeffery Lippert, who was serving as Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Thurston County, submitted his resignation to Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim Aug. 4.

When Thurston County’s chief criminal prosecutor resigned last week, he cited recent events in his personal life that had compromised his ability to effectively serve the office.

Now, details of what led to his resignation have emerged showing Jeffery Lippert had been in a relationship with a woman whose estranged brother was facing criminal charges in Thurston County. That relationship raised questions about whether Lippert had influenced the case, and prompted Christopher Westfall, the brother and defendant, to file a complaint with the Washington State Bar Association, interviews by The Olympian and documents show.

Westfall believes the relationship between the prosecutor and his sister unfairly impacted his case, and that the prosecutor was helping his sister exact a vendetta against him, according to the complaint.

In his reply to the complaint, Lippert said none of his actions affected Westfall’s case.

Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim, Lippert’s former boss, told The Olympian that in his review of Westfall’s case and two others in Thurston County Superior Court that are so far undisclosed, he didn’t find anything “patently unethical or illegal” occurred, although the relationship could create the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Lippert served as the Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Thurston County. He managed his own small caseload while overseeing day-to-day operations of the office’s criminal division, which, according to information on the office’s website, includes five trial teams and more than 20 deputy prosecuting attorneys.

Lippert resigned Aug. 4. “Recent events in my personal life which have affected my professional duties have compromised my ability to serve as a leader in the Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office,” his letter of resignation reads.

A few weeks before Lippert’s resignation, Westfall said the person with his power of attorney filed a bar complaint on his behalf against Lippert. The Olympian obtained a copy of that complaint, which has not been made public, and a copy of a response written by Lippert. “The bar association does not comment, confirm or deny matters that have not become public record,” a spokesperson for the association wrote in an email to The Olympian.

Westfall was arrested in February by Yelm police in Lewis County, then charged in Thurston County. He now faces 13 felony counts in that case, including four counts of possession of a stolen vehicle and three counts of possession of a stolen firearm, according to court documents.

Westfall posted bail, then was arrested two more times in Lewis County on separate charges. A bench warrant was issued on May 23, and he has been held in Thurston County Jail without bail since May 28. He requested a bond review July 17. On Aug. 6, a date was set for that hearing.

The allegations against Lippert

In his complaint filed July 10 with the Washington State Bar Association, Westfall alleged Lippert “engaged in an extra-marital affair” with his sister, that his sister had enlisted Lippert in “her personal vendetta” against him, and that Lippert has given case information to his sister and assisted her in “creating false allegations” against him and others.

“She told me, point blank, she had friends in the prosecutor’s office and she was going to ruin my life,” Westfall said in an interview with The Olympian.

In the interview, Westfall detailed the origins of animus between him and his sister, which match up with some of what Lippert wrote in his reply to Westfall’s bar complaint.

According to those two sources, Westfall and his sister were involved in a personal-property dispute following their father’s death. They disagreed about who in the family should have their father’s motorcycle. Westfall had it in his possession, and his sister wanted to take possession.

His sister ultimately won in Lewis County’s small claims court by default, when Westfall did not appear at the hearing because he was in the Lewis County jail.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Why did we report this story?

When a person working in a public office resigns, it’s easy to jump to conclusions or assume something suspicious is behind it. By sorting through what led to the prosecutor’s resignation, in this case, The Olympian hopes to bring transparency to a matter of public concern.

Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.

How did we report it?

First, we submitted a public records request for Lippert’s letter of resignation and other documents. Part of that request was still being processed at the time this story was published. With the letter in hand, we talked to Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim, who filled us in on the timeline of Lippert’s resignation and gave us a general idea of what happened. What he could share was limited, at that point.

When a friend of Westfall’s reached out to us with a tip, we started a conversation with that friend. The friend provided us with copies of the bar complaint and Lippert’s response to the bar complaint and helped us get in touch with Westfall in Thurston County Jail. We interviewed Westfall over the phone.

After reading through the additional documents, we talked to Tunheim again. We also talked to the prosecuting attorney assigned to Westfall’s case, Westfall a second time, and a spokesperson for the Washington State Bar Association. Throughout reporting the story, we spoke with Lippert twice, and he verified that the reply we had received was the reply he wrote. We called Westfall’s sister three times over four days and left a voicemail each time, but did not receive a call back.

In this story, we made the decision to publish Lippert’s letter of resignation, but did not publish the bar complaint or the response to that complaint, which were not public documents. We didn’t publish them because those documents identify people who we chose not to identify in the story.

Who edited it?

Dusti Demarest, Editor for The Olympian, and Bob Salladay, West Region Investigative Editor for McClatchy. The story was also reviewed by McClatchy legal staff.

Lippert’s response

In his reply to the bar complaint, dated Aug. 5, Lippert admitted to the affair with Westfall’s sister. However, he wrote that the allegation of assisting in the sister’s “personal vendetta” against Westfall was not accurate.

Lippert wrote that he was “aware generally” that Westfall was being prosecuted by the office and “did not participate directly in the processing or prosecution of the case,” but “became aware at some point” Westfall was the brother of the woman he had an affair with.

As to his involvement in the motorcycle dispute between Westfall and his sister, Lippert wrote that he didn’t provide the woman legal advice about getting the motorcycle from her brother, but “suggested she consider filing a claim in small claims court.”

The woman, Lippert wrote, informed him that Westfall had been arrested by Yelm police on “various charges” and was in Thurston County Jail and that she had provided information to a Yelm police sergeant about Westfall and his case. Lippert also wrote that the woman discussed how to get the motorcycle back from Westfall with the sergeant.

Any time she told Lippert information about Westfall, he directed her to speak to the sergeant, according to Lippert’s reply. He spoke to the sergeant, he wrote, on what he believed was three occasions mentioning the woman and her brother, “but did not discuss the substance of Mr. Westfall’s case...”

When Yelm police raided Westfall’s garage and took items of evidence, the woman told Lippert about it, according to his reply.

“I was both unaware of the specifics of and had no involvement in the investigation by Yelm police or any other police or sheriff’s department into Mr. Westfall’s activities in Thurston or Lewis counties,” Lippert wrote in his reply.

When the woman wanted to see if the motorcycle at issue was in the raided garage, Lippert looked up the case in the office’s case management system and reviewed the police report and photos for signs of a motorcycle, according to Lippert’s response. When he found photos of a motorcycle that hadn’t been seized, he forwarded the photos to the woman.

“These materials were public records and would have been available pursuant to a public records request,” Lippert wrote.

He also provided her a printed Google search on the value of the motorcycle from publicly available sources and a copy of small claims instructions from the District Court’s website, he wrote. But they didn’t enter into an attorney-client relationship, he didn’t provide her with legal advice, and he didn’t represent her in her small-claims suit, according to the reply.

The motorcycle, he wrote, is not the subject of Westfall’s charges in Thurston County, to his knowledge.

Lippert’s knowledge of Westfall’s case in Thurston County Superior Court, he wrote, was limited to about four conversations with the deputy prosecutor who handled the case and a conversation with Westfall’s defense attorney. He wrote that he had read the police reports, but had “minimal knowledge of the actual facts or charges and potential defenses.”

In one conversation, Lippert told the deputy prosecutor the woman had informed him Westfall was arrested in Lewis County while out on bail, and suggested the prosecutor confirm that and determine if it would impact her case. In other conversations with the deputy prosecutor and Westfall’s defense attorney, Lippert wrote he asked whether there was interest in resolving the case.

“I would note the interactions I had with both the Deputy Prosecutor and Defense Counsel on Mr. Westfall’s case were routine and an important part of my position as Chief Criminal Deputy,” Lippert wrote.

Lippert emphasized in his letter that the woman was not, to his knowledge, a victim, suspect, or witness in the Yelm Police Department’s investigation, the prosecutor’s office’s prosecution, or Lewis County’s investigation and prosecution of Westfall.

“In an effort to ensure appropriate distance from the case, I was not involved in the details of the prosecution,” Lippert wrote.

Lippert told The Olympian that, at this point, this is a private matter and he does not want to answer questions or make further comment. He did, however, verify that he wrote the reply and that what he wrote was, in his opinion, accurate.

The Olympian called Westfall’s sister three times over the course of four days and left voicemails each time, but did not receive a reply.

In interviews, Westfall mentioned specific concerns he has about his case that aren’t mentioned in his bar complaint. For one, he wasn’t sure why his Lewis County charges landed him in Thurston County’s court, and he believes Yelm police broke a specific state law when they arrested him across county lines.

The deputy prosecutor originally assigned to his case, Olivia Zhou, told The Olympian the case is in Thurston County because Yelm police were investigating alleged crimes that occurred in Yelm, part of Thurston County, when they found him in Lewis County.

“When they located him, they allegedly observed him to have allegedly committed more offenses,” Zhou said. When she reached out to Lewis County to check which office would be filing charges, Zhou said she believes it was their understanding Thurston County would “take everything.”

The 13 charges Westfall is facing in Thurston County now — some of which came out of that encounter and some from others — Zhou said are a representation of a culmination of the Yelm Police Department’s investigation.

Another of Westfall’s concerns: The bail reconsideration hearing he’d requested on July 17 wasn’t scheduled until the day KING 5 reported on Lippert’s resignation. He wonders why it wasn’t scheduled until after Lippert resigned.

Zhou told The Olympian that a motion to reconsider bail would be brought by Westfall’s attorney, not the prosecutor’s office.

‘There wasn’t anything patently unethical or illegal’

According to Lippert’s reply to the bar complaint, he was notified of the grievance on July 16, and he then informed Tunheim of the complaint, his involvement with the woman, and the details of Westfall’s allegations.

In an interview with The Olympian, Tunheim said he took a couple weeks to review everything, to look back to see whether there were any actual conflicts of interest or impropriety in the Thurston County cases at issue. There are two other cases, besides Westfall’s, Tunheim declined to divulge in light of a public records request submitted by The Olympian. Westfall’s case is the only case of the three that’s ongoing, according to Tunheim.

In his review, Tunheim said he didn’t find anything “patently unethical or illegal.”

“When I looked at it, I was satisfied that I don’t think there was an actual conflict, and I don’t think there was any impropriety or anything that was done on the cases that was wrong or that compromised our ability to do the case,” Tunheim said.

Ultimately, he said, “it will be up to the bar association if there was any ethical issue.”

But Tunheim did find the potential for an appearance of a conflict of interest that the office might have built appropriate safeguards to avoid, had they known, to avoid compromising the public’s perception.

“There’s a very clear expectation in this office that appearance of conflict issues need to be disclosed as much as any actual conflicts,” Tunheim said.

In Lippert’s leadership role, Tunheim said Lippert provided a sort of “secondary oversight” of cases outside his small caseload. Mostly, he said, Lippert was managing the people who manage the cases. Westfall’s case was not in Lippert’s personal caseload.

When he met with Lippert on Aug. 4, Tunheim concluded “the things that were happening put us in a position where he couldn’t be an effective leader in the office anymore.”

Lippert offered his resignation, and Tunheim accepted. Tunheim said Westfall’s case will proceed in Thurston County, but that he worked with Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer to transfer the case to a deputy prosecutor there “so there’s absolutely no appearance” of impropriety.

While he’s disappointed that the office went through this, Tunheim gives Lippert credit for disclosing the issue and recognizing it had compromised his ability to be a leader in the office. In all other respects, Tunheim said, Lippert was “excellent at his job.”

“I think we made the decision we had to make to maintain the values of the office and for everybody to understand that these standards that we hold people to are important,” Tunheim said.

For now, some of Lippert’s work will move to the criminal teams’ leaders, and some will move to Christy Peters, the office’s Chief of Staff. Tunheim said he hopes to hire a replacement within 60 to 90 days.

Sara Gentzler joined The Olympian in June 2019. She primarily covers Thurston County government and its courts, as well as breaking news. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Creighton University.
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