Revolting Lawyers

Is the Kootenai County prosecutor allowing nepotism in his office, or is he just doing what he must to prosecute a tough case?

Defense attorneys in Coeur d’Alene are raising questions of nepotism in the Kootenai County prosecutor’s office, saying that the hiring of a chief deputy prosecutor’s wife is an affront to state law.

The office defends the decision, saying that the woman, former prosecutor Betsy Black, is the best qualified to handle the case she was hired for. Black led the investigation into the January 2009 death of 2-year-old Karina Janay Moore before going into private practice.

“She had the best working knowledge of anybody in the office,” Prosecutor Barry McHugh says, defending Black’s hire. Moore’s foster parents were charged last month in the girl’s death. “It made sense to continue to have Betsy work on the case.”

But Kootenai County Chief Public Defender John Adams says Black’s $100-per-hour compensation, along with the access to a computer and secretary offered by the prosecutor’s office, is excessive. Black is married to chief deputy prosecutor Barry Black.

“I’m very surprised that Barry McHugh feels he doesn’t have the adequate skills among his staff to prosecute this case,” Adams says. “This contract, which has been going on for two years now, raises a lot of questions under the Idaho Rules of Law and the Idaho Constitution.”

Jim Siebe, a defense attorney in Coeur d’Alene and former president of the Idaho Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says he wonders why, in a time of budget slashing, county commissioners signed off on the hiring of yet another attorney. The county already has six prosecutors.

He compares Black’s compensation to that of conflict defense attorneys — private attorneys contracted with the public defender’s office in the event of conflicts of interests. Those attorneys are usually paid $35 per-hour to defend clients that the public defenders can’t.

“I think this is certainly excessive as far as … how cheap the county has been to other contracts,” Siebe says.

Suzanna Graham, a local defense attorney, believes that the contract would likely pass legal muster, since Black is not directly supervised by her husband. But she, too, questioned the compensation. She points to the fact that married couples are entitled to half of each other’s income under Idaho law. Graham alleges that because Black’s hourly salary is more than her husband’s, he could benefit from her hiring.

“As a citizen of Idaho and a taxpayer, I’ve got concerns about why I’d pay for that,” Graham says. “As a defense attorney, I have concerns about why the prosecutors [renewed Black’s contract]. I just don’t think its fair.”

McHugh says Black reports directly to him and is not supervised by her husband. He added that though she has been offered the use of the prosecutor’s office and its accommodations, Black works out of her own office in Coeur d’Alene, and comes to the prosecutor’s office only occasionally.

And her $100-per-hour is less of a rate than she would be charging in her private practice, he says.

“Having her experience with regards to details that nobody else had, I found to be valuable,” McHugh says. “No one else could have picked up the case and understood the credibility of witnesses, the effectiveness of testimony, as she can.”

Black began working under contract with the prosecutor’s office in March of 2010, and the contract was renewed in October. For the first contract, Black could receive up to $13,000 in compensation for the fiscal year. But she can receive up to $25,000 for the second contract. County commissioners signed off on both contracts.

Kootenai County Commissioner Todd Tondee says that while he was aware that Betsy Black was the wife of a prosecutor, he was assured that there would be no interaction between them.

“There’s no supervision in that position. They have the ability to put up Chinese walls where you don’t do these things,” Tondee says, referring to sets of office procedures intended to prevent conflicts of interest. Kootenai County’s employee handbook says people in relationships may not “directly or indirectly supervise or [be] supervised by another close family relative.”

“If they’re not supervising each other in that department, they’re OK,” Tondee says. 

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About The Author

Chris Stein

Chris Stein is a staff writer at The Inlander. He covers social services, downtown Spokane, Eastern Washington and Spokane city hall. His work has been published by the Associated Press, VeloNews and the Santa Barbara Independent. He was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area.