Going into his trial last week, it was hard to see how Nez Perce County Commissioner Doug Havens might wiggle out of the legal jam facing him.
He didn’t have the facts on his side.
More than a year ago, the county commissioner participated in declaring county property surplus. When it went to auction, Havens scooped up some of the goods with $5 bids that netted him a 50-year-old operating table, a toolbox, a filing cabinet and a windshield wiper display.
He admitted it: “I mean, I did buy the items; that’s $20 of my own money I kind of wish I could get back. There’s no disputing that I bought them.”
Nor was the law his friend. It says: “State, county, district, precinct and city officers must not be purchasers at any sale nor vendors at any purchase made by them in their official capacity.”
Nez Perce County Prosecutor Justin Coleman put out an alert to county employees, advising them to avoid such behavior in the future. He then recused himself from the case, bringing in an attorney general’s office that under Lawrence Wasden was experienced in pursuing public corruption convictions.
If Wasden’s office was willing to proceed against county officials who billed taxpayers for cellphones and gas purchases, it would hardly be dissuaded by Havens’ claim that his operating table or toolbox were practically worthless.
To Wasden, the value involved was secondary. Small deeds left unchallenged today only encourage more egregious acts down the road.
At that point, the prudent thing for Havens would have been to issue a mea culpa and make amends.
He held firm.
He blamed Nez Perce County Clerk-Auditor Patty O. Weeks.
Havens mocked the case on Facebook with a photo depicting him leaning against the filing cabinet and offering to give the items away free of charge. “I had plans to make a smoker out of the file cabinet after I saw a YouTube video,” Havens’ post said. “Makes me wish I’d bought the other 27 cabinets that probably ended up in the landfill.”
So Wasden’s shop filed a misdemeanor for each of the surplus items — four counts, each carrying a $1,000 fine and a year in jail.
In other words, Havens needed some kind of legal miracle.
Lucky for him, the attorney general’s office provided one.
Before a lawyer can go to trial, he has to disclose his witnesses to the other side. It’s called due process.
Deputy Attorney General David Morse failed to notify Havens and his attorney, Scott Chapman, that he would be calling Asmir Kararic, an investigator in his office.
No disclosure, no testimony, said 1st District Judge Patrick R. McFadden.
No Kararic testimony, no case, said Morse.
Case dismissed, said McFadden.
While Morse talked about refiling the charges against Havens, it was far from certain he could. Because a jury had been empaneled, double jeopardy may have attached, Chapman said. Havens could not be tried for the same offense twice.
Before that question could be resolved, however, the comedy of errors continued. Later in the week, the attorney general’s office discovered state law bars refiling a misdemeanor after it’s been dismissed.
“We made an error that affected our ability to prosecute this case,” office spokesman Scott Graf said. “The judge made the correct decision. We regret that this happened and are already examining our processes to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That said, we support the prosecutor and I guarantee that no one feels worse about this than he does.”
Even John Gotti, the so-called “Teflon Don” — who was acquitted three times in the 1980s — would have a tough time matching that story.
Either way, the case of “Teflon Doug” does not leave you with much faith in your government. — M.T.