Since when does an independent investigator maintain a “lawyer-client” relationship with the person she is supposed to be investigating? Back in 2000, former federal prosecutor Susan Barnes was appointed as an independent investigator to look into how Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire’s office managed to fumble away roughly $18 million.
The error was both expensive for the taxpayers and politically embarrassing to the ambitious attorney general. But Gregoire was not about to leave things to chance, so, as we have now learned, her office helped shape the final report and even influenced the date of its release to minimize its political impact.
The sordid tale begins about four years ago when Christine Gregoire’s office failed to file an appeal of a $17.8 million dollar judgment against the state. Known as the Beckman case, it involved three disabled men who sued Washington charging that they had been abused at a state medical facility. The state decided to appeal, but the filing deadline came and went with no action from the Attorney General’s office. A “pretty please, we just don’t know where the time went,” appeal was denied. The judgment stood and the state forked over $18 million to the plaintiffs and their lawyers, as interest had accrued while the attorney general dragged her feet.
Now if you are Christine Gregoire, you don’t take this lying down. The state’s loss is nothing when compared to the damage it might do to your ambitions. The attorney general’s office was only meant to be a stepping stone for Gregoire. She has managed that office with an eye toward higher office rather than as the state’s chief law enforcement officer.
For example, earlier in her career, she worked with the Washington Education Association to evade the clear intentions of initiative 134. I-134 briefly forbade unions from using mandatory union dues for political campaigns.
The teachers’ union flagrantly disobeyed the law, but Gregoire enforced it only after the private Evergreen Freedom Foundation forced the issue in the courts. But although she slapped the union’s hand with a fine, she also provided the union with a legal roadmap for eluding the law in the future. The WEA rewarded Gregoire last week by endorsing her candidacy for governor, so she’ll be benefiting from those extorted dollars.
The Beckman case blunder was politically problematic for two reasons. First Christine Gregoire faced an imminent reelection campaign. Secondly, she did not want this blot on her resume when she laced up her running shoes for her next climb up the ladder.
The career path of a politician rarely includes coming down the success ladder. So they don’t really care whom they step on while climbing up that ladder. Christine Gregoire needed someone to serve as a rung on her ladder. This is where Janet Capp and Susan Barnes entered the picture.
Janet Capp worked on the Beckman case and was ultimately blamed for failing to get the proper papers filed in a timely fashion. Susan Barnes was the supposedly independent investigator who pointed the finger at Capp. Susan Barnes’ report forced Capps resignation from the Attorney General’s office.
The problem is that Susan Barnes was not all that independent. The Seattle Times recently acquired documentation that throughout the investigation, Christine Gregoire’s chief deputy attorney general, Kathy Mix, kept up an almost daily dialogue with Susan Barnes. Kathy Mix helped Barnes with her conclusions, the identification of a scapegoat, the exoneration of Gregoire, and even with the timing of the report’s release.
Mix asked that Barnes be “more positive” in one part of the report, and “can you give us any leeway here?" in another.
The Attorney General’s office even manipulated the date of the reports release, arguing that it would be "insane to write something before the election." So, the report was withheld until after the votes were counted and the election certified.
Susan Barnes waves away any appearance of impropriety by saying that the communications were only what one would expect in a lawyer-client relationship. The problem is that Susan Barnes was paid $50,000 by the State of Washington to discover the truth, not to represent the political interests of Christine Gregoire.
Richard Nixon taught us that the cover up is worse than the crime. Voters probably would have forgiven human error. Cover ups should never be forgiven.