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Originally published Saturday, September 8, 2012 at 8:09 PM

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Chief prosecutor, predicted to be an 'unmitigated disaster,' now facing disciplinary charges

Grant County, in Central Washington, has one of the state's most troubled criminal-justice systems, with a series of judges and public defenders landing in trouble. Now the county's elected prosecutor, D. Angus Lee, is facing formal disciplinary charges, accused of engaging in conflicts of interest and of trying to force a political rival to do the same.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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In January 2009, the commissioners for Central Washington's Grant County were poised to name a new chief prosecutor for their 90,000 or so constituents when they received a warning letter full of italics, bold letters and exclamation points.

The letter — titled No Confidence Vote — was signed by seven of the county's assistant prosecutors and the administrative assistant who helped manage the county's prosecuting attorney's office. Their message was: Please do not appoint D. Angus Lee.

They decried Lee's "very limited legal experience," saying he had never even tried a felony case. Appointing Lee, a lawyer who had spent about two years prosecuting traffic offenses and the like, would be akin to tapping an unseasoned traffic cop as chief of police, they wrote.

They criticized Lee's leadership abilities — "he is not a team player!" — and predicted that his appointment would be "an unmitigated disaster."

"This position is much too important to be awarded solely based on political maneuvering and work for the party!" they wrote.

To finish the term of the county's chief prosecutor, who had recently been elected a judge, the county's Republican Party had forwarded three candidates to the commissioners, including Lee.

The three commissioners received the warning letter about Lee on Jan. 6. On Jan. 7, they interviewed Lee. And on Jan. 8, they selected Lee to be the county's head prosecutor.

For the Grant County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, the months and years since then have been marked by tumult, with bar complaints whizzing back and forth, along with civil claims and counterclaims, whistle-blower complaints, criminal investigations of former office personnel, and the occasional unprintable insult.

This year, the Washington State Bar Association filed formal disciplinary charges against Lee, accusing him of engaging in conflicts of interest and of trying to force an assistant to do the same. Bar officials said they know of no other instance in Washington where a county's top prosecutor has faced formal charges while still in office. If Lee is found to have violated ethics rules, he could face possible suspension of his law license.

For his chief deputy, Lee named lawyer Edward Owens, a former police officer who got hooked on methamphetamine and wound up being convicted of a drug felony.

"How is it that someone who is a convicted felon is the chief deputy?" asks Albert Lin, a former assistant prosecutor in Grant County and Lee's chief political rival. "To me that's outrageous."

For Teddy Chow, a former deputy prosecutor who signed that letter to the commissioners, the turn of events in the prosecutor's office amounts to: "I told you so." Stephen Hallstrom, another signatory, says: "I think that letter has been borne out to be pretty accurate. Why the commissioners would have disregarded the concerns in that letter escapes me." Cathy Neils, the office's former administrative assistant, looks at the words "unmitigated disaster" and says: "That's exactly what it is."

A quandary

Grant County, home to the Gorge Amphitheatre, a big potato crop and mushrooming data centers, has one of the state's most troubled criminal-justice systems.

Seven years ago the county settled a class-action lawsuit challenging its woeful public-defense system; among other lowlights, two public defenders were disbarred for requesting payment from clients they were supposed to represent for free. The county's judges, past and present, have been disciplined at least seven times since the early 1990s; one, accused of incompetence and sleeping on the bench, was ordered to attend a school for judges and study ethics.

Now the prosecuting attorney's office is under scrutiny.

Lee's appointment as top prosecutor lasted only a year. To retain the office, he needed to win election in November 2009. His chief opponent was Lin, a deputy prosecutor who handled felonies and had substantially more legal experience.

That summer and fall, with the election pending, Lee assigned to Lin three matters that Lin considered conflicts. They included a potential charge against a judge whom the prosecutors appeared before regularly, and a criminal allegation — tenuous, at best, according to accounts in documents — against Neils, the office's former administrative assistant.

For Lin, the assignments presented a quandary: If he did what Lee asked, he could land in trouble with the bar. Refuse, and he could be in trouble with his boss.

To Lin — and later, to the bar — the Neils matter captured how Lee was wading into a case where conflicts abounded. After being appointed chief prosecutor, Lee had fired Neils.

She had responded by suing the county and Lee personally, and Lee, in turn, had filed counterclaims against Neils. Neils had publicly opposed Lee's candidacy for office — she was an active supporter of Lin's campaign — and what's more, Lee had been personally involved in the series of events concerning Neils that was being investigated.

Lin wrote Lee several memos saying he was ethically obliged to refuse the assignments. He also provided letters from two lawyers he had hired who shared his view.

In October, Lee twice wrote Lin up for insubordination. The second time Lee punished Lin by refusing him annual leave for 30 days — this, on the cusp of the election.

Lee rescinded that punishment a week later, but to Lin, it was part of a pattern. He accused Lee of hampering Lin's candidacy and his ability to campaign — from loading Lin up with more cases than other prosecutors ("Angus is burying me with work," Lin wrote) to muzzling him from talking to the media after a courtroom victory.

In the 2009 election, with more than 16,000 votes cast, Lee edged Lin by 275 votes. In a rematch the next year, Lee won again.

The state bar's disciplinary charges could threaten Lee's hold on the office. The bar has filed three counts, accusing Lee of a conflict of interest in two matters and of creating a conflict for Lin in a third. No hearing on the charges has yet been scheduled.

Lee has denied the allegations, and his lawyer has argued in filings that prosecutors, unlike judges, are neither required nor expected to be impartial.

Seattle University law professor John Strait, a specialist in legal ethics, said he believes that if Lee's law license is suspended, he would have to give up the office during that time: "If the allegations are true, I think that's pretty serious misconduct on the part of a prosecuting attorney."

"Your humble servant"

When appointed prosecutor, Lee was 31 and a member of the bar for 3 ½ years. With undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Washington, he had been a deputy prosecutor for about two years, handling misdemeanors from driving while suspended to fishing without a license.

Before working in Grant County, Lee served about eight years in the Marine Corps Reserves — a military background that he pointed to as evidence of his leadership. In 2005, as a sergeant in Iraq, Lee was shot and wounded, and received the Purple Heart.

Lee did not return calls for this story, but Cindy Carter, one of the Grant County commissioners who tapped him for the position, said: "He's very levelheaded. He's focused. He's not wishy-washy. He's ex-military. He's driven."

Lee offered sound, budget-conscious ideas for running the office, she said. Commissioners took into account the letter challenging Lee's qualifications, but were mindful that personalities will clash whenever someone proposes changing an office's culture.

"I think he's done an excellent job," Carter said. She referred to Lee's difficulties with the bar as "politically motivated."

Neils, the former office manager, said of Lee and the commissioners: "He's such a schmoozer, he schmoozed them." Steven Lacy, an attorney who represented three former employees of the office in lawsuits against the county, said: "He's a young, good-looking ex-Marine. You can imagine how that goes over in a conservative county."

Of the eight people who signed that warning letter to the county commissioners, Lee showed five the door. Two others quit. Stephen Hallstrom, fired after more than 20 years with the office, said Lee notified him by phone: "I guess I was surprised that after all the years I put in there, he didn't have it in him to tell me to my face."

Lee also filed bar complaints or helped initiate criminal investigations against at least five of the letter's signatories, according to interviews and records. "Political vindictiveness," Hallstrom said. To date, none of Lee's bar complaints has led to disciplinary charges against those other lawyers.

Of three wrongful-termination lawsuits filed against the county by employees fired by Lee, one was dropped, one settled for $75,000, and a third was rejected by a jury. Lacy, the lawyer for all three plaintiffs, said that in the case that was tried, Lee was "extremely suave, extremely confident, just real impressive. ... To use the old term, you have to give the devil his due. He's no dumb guy."

Lee, who is married with two children, signs his work emails, "Your humble servant," and often uses his family life and military service as calling cards. On Avvo, a website that purports to evaluate attorneys, his honors include "Father of The Year," awarded in 2008. The granting organization was "The Lee Sisters."

In 2008, Lee filed a motion in Seattle Municipal Court asking that an old misdemeanor conviction be vacated.

As a 20-year-old undergraduate, Lee, while driving, had been seen repeatedly hitting the gas, then slamming the brakes and skidding. Lee told a police officer he was trying to impress girls in the car.

Charged with driving under the influence, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of negligent driving.

In asking that the conviction be vacated, Lee filed a written statement apologizing and describing what he had accomplished since then, with pictures of him in uniform and with his kids. He titled his statement "Declaration of Penitent Man." A judge granted Lee's request in January 2009, the same month he became chief prosecutor.

Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or karmstrong@seattletimes.com

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