Stevens County Commissioners repay Homelessness fund in full, vacate office and settle case after 18 months

RaeLynn Ricarte

On Monday, Wes McCart turned a check for about $48,000 over to Stevens County Treasurer Leslie Valz to cover the remaining balance in the homelessness funds lawsuit.

That move followed a ruling on Friday, Sept. 25, by Spokane Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno that McCart, Steve Parker and Don Dashiell and their bonding company owed $55,121 of interest on the $130,326 they had already repaid to the homelessness fund.

In addition, she said they owed $1,710 in taxable costs and attorney fees for George Ahrend. He is the Moses Lake lawyer chosen by Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen to pursue the civil suit.

McCart had already paid $8,972 to cover the $7,000 of interest the commission believed was owing based on other county investments. However, Moreno sided with Ahrend that the 12% per annum set by the Legislature for such debts should apply.

McCart said the only way to stop interest from continuing to accrue was to pay the full amount set by Moreno. He declined to provide further information about how the commissioners would divvy up the final bill.

With Moreno’s final judgment, the commissioners’ bonds were violated and they had to vacate their offices, said McCart.

“We are not contesting the fact that, as of Friday, we are out,” he said on Monday morning.

The bonds are a sort of liability insurance to protect citizens against wrongful decisions made by elected officials, who cannot serve without them.

The commissioners disputed Ramussen’s claim that they had to step down when Moreno ruled a couple weeks ago that they were “liable for unconstitutional gifting of public funds.”

Alison Turnbull, representing the commissioners from the Spokane firm of Kirkpatrick & Startzel, argued that a final judgment had not been rendered in the case. Therefore, the state law that triggered vacation of an elected office when a bond was violated did not yet apply.

Rasmussen then obtained a restraining order to prevent the commissioners from returning to their offices, or conducting any official business, until Friday’s hearing.

McCart, 61, said when attorney fees for legal representation are added in, he will have expended about $200,000 out of what was to have been his retirement savings. Therefore, he said it is unlikely that he and the other defendants in the case will want to spend more money to appeal the judgment.

“As it is, I am probably not going to be able to retire now without getting some kind of a job,” said McCart. “But, at this point, I’m just wanting to pay it and move on.” Mitch Short, chair of the Stevens

County Republican Party, began advertising Friday for people interested in filling the three vacant positions; two until after the November election is certified and the third for about a year before an election take place.

People interested in applying can submit a name via an email contact form at www.stevenscounty, through Facebook, or by mail at SCRCC, PO Box 911, Chewelah WA 99109.
Short said people do not have to be Republican to apply but precinct committee officers from the party will be selecting the nominees.

A special meeting to select nominees will be held by the GOP on Saturday, Oct. 10, although the location has not yet been chosen. Short said the site will be advertised at a later date and the public is welcome to attend and observe the proceedings.

He said Republicans will submit two lists with three names on each to Gov. Jay Inslee, who will appoint two commissioners.

Those officials will then appoint the third within five days. If for some reason they don’t, Inslee will make that appointment too.

McCart is running for a third term in his District 1 position and said he will be putting his name in the hat for an appointment.

“I want to continue to serve because I still have a great love for this county,” he said. “I have worked hard to represent the people here and I have a proven track record of getting things done. My experience is going to be needed now more than ever.”

In August, he captured nearly 72% of the primary vote compared to about 28% received by Democrat Michael Bell.

It is untrue that he will no longer be able to get a bond that is required for an elected official to serve, said McCart.

He said the commission chose to pay all of the money owing instead of having the bonding company pay out and then having to reimburse that payment.

“There is no reason this company wouldn’t work with me now but, if they don’t, there are other companies that will,” he said.

During the period of vacancy, he said Inslee is likely to enact a statute that was designed for catastrophic events that removed an entire board. That law allows the seven elected department heads to set up a panel to make budget decisions.

It has been difficult to comprehend such a huge consequence for a “paperwork error, said McCart, who is no longer constrained by his attorneys from speaking about the case. Parker opted to give his thoughts at a later date. Dashiell said he was going to catch up with a long to-do list that had been neglected due to the long hours he put into public service. He was also looking forward to the first time off he's had in 10 years.

“I’m just glad it’s done,” he said of the case that has spanned 18 months.

McCart said the commission was attempting to use its share of homelessness funding from state filing fees the same way it had been used by other officials in the past.

“There was never an intent to do something wrong,” he said.

In the past, McCart said other county officials have sometimes erred in financial decisions, but the state has helped them fix the problem and move on. He believes that’s what the auditor’s office was trying to do when Rasmussen initiated the suit.

“The auditor’s office told us that they wanted to be proactive not retroactive,” said McCart.

He said state officials advised the commission to fix the problem by redoing its homelessness plan to require contracts that ensured greater accountability for use of the public funds, and establishing criteria about how the money could be used.

He said the plan has since been updated to address its areas of deficiency.

When Rasmussen obtained the state auditor’s report that the expenditures on two private projects were not allowed, McCart said he immediately went punitive.

Rasmussen gave the commission notice that he would no longer provide legal advice on the homelessness issue. He then filed a suit to recover the money that he said was necessary to “make the county whole.”

Rasmussen was unable to be reached for comment on Monday. He has long said that his opinion was never sought before the commissioners acted, and he did not learn of the expenditures until they had already taken place.

“When elected officials abuse the power given them, the same law that gave them authority and power when they were elected removes that authority and power, and removes them from office,” he said after hearing in early September.

McCart said the first duty of the prosecutor is to provide legal counsel to the commission, which is the legislative body for the county.

He said the proposal to give financial help to the recipients was posted on a meeting agenda and Rasmussen could have stepped in at any time to advise against those expenditures. In other counties, he said prosecutors check in regularly with the commission to inquire about upcoming actions.

The money later determined by Moreno to have been misspent helped a Kettle Falls couple whose home was uninhabitable due to flooding and two nonprofit organizations that built a transitional home in Kettle Falls for people with spinal cord injuries.

“In both cases, we really thought the recipients met the definition of homelessness,” said McCart.

He said when public money is wrongfully expended, the usual practice of governments is to recover it from the recipients. However, he said Rasmussen was never willing to consider any other way to resolve the case short of ousting the commissioners.

Last week, Ahrend told Moreno that the commissioners could have made arrangements to repay the money at any time. However, he said they did not do so under their bond company threatened to pull their bonds.

“They chose the course of this litigation. They need to absorb the consequences,” Ahrend said.

If the commissioners did not vacate their offices after the Sept. 25 hearing, Ahrend was poised to pursue a special legal action that would have forced the issue. There are still several small issues to be legally resolved, said McCart, but the divisive case is mostly resolved.