ASOTIN — Asotin County Prosecutor Ben Nichols presented his case for filling a vacant attorney position Thursday at a workshop with officials who control the county’s purse strings.
No action was taken, but after an hour of discussion, the county commissioners seemed to be leaning in favor of the request, saying they plan to make a decision at their next regular meeting.
The workshop was prompted by the recent resignation of Deputy Prosecutor Craig Watt, who is leaving the prosecutor’s office at the end of February for a job at a private law firm in Moscow. Nichols wanted to start advertising for the opening last week, but the county commissioners pumped the brakes over concerns about the shortage of public defenders.
“It seems kind of odd to have a fully loaded prosecutor’s office and no one to represent defendants,” Commissioner Jim Jeffords said Thursday morning. “That’s why we’re talking about this.”
Asotin County has two public defenders on contract, but many cases are being assigned to outside attorneys because of caseload limits and conflicts. An indigent defense attorney quit in December and no one has shown interest in the vacancy, the commissioners said.
The shortage has added to the strain in Superior Court. Asotin County has been operating in “crisis” mode since the sitting judge, Scott Gallina, was arrested on sexual misconduct charges in April and went on paid administrative leave, officials said.
“Cutting the prosecutor’s office won’t help you,” Nichols said. “It won’t bring a line of attorneys to your door. We’re 100 miles from anywhere and there’s no major highway. ... The situation with our judge is also an issue. Some attorneys may not want their names associated with that mess.”
Nichols said the four attorneys in his office handle felonies, juvenile cases, misdemeanors, civil issues, appeals, child support and dependencies, along with coroner duties. After the judge was arrested, they’ve been dealing with “an alarming growth” in appeals.
“It’s not just cases we tried in the last year or two,” the prosecutor said. “We are even getting letters from people about cases from when (Gallina) was a defense attorney. We have to respond to each and every one.”
The workload is increasing and some felony cases are sitting on desks, waiting to be filed, Nichols told the commissioners.
“When we prosecute cases, we deter crime,” Nichols said. “If word gets out we can’t prosecute because we’re short staffed, criminal behavior will increase. The point is the work we are doing in our office is significant and important.”
Commissioner Brian Shinn said he appreciates the work they do, but he and the other commissioners have fielded numerous complaints about Deputy Prosecutor Curt Liedkie being inflexible and overcharging cases.
“I strongly feel he is an obstacle to us hiring decent defense attorneys,” Shinn said.
Nichols said Liedkie draws a hard line on “bad actors” who are arrested for committing serious felonies in the community because it’s his job.
“I think he’s being demonized,” Nichols said. “We’ve given him the worst cases, and we make a plea offer in almost every single case.”
Shinn said he’s grateful to have a good working relationship with the prosecutor and expected a passionate defense about staffing levels in his office. The reason it became an issue is because the commissioners are looking at the bottom line and concerned about having more prosecutors than defense attorneys, he said. At this point, they plan to move forward and will continue to monitor the situation.
Sandaine may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2264. Follow her on Twitter @newsfromkerri.