Offering a free attorney to poor people accused of crimes is a necessary service. In Seattle, it's a service funded almost entirely by taxpayer money—and there's almost never enough money to do the job as well as it should be done, especially now, in the midst of the Great Recession.
So it's odd that around $150,000 in public money—probably more—was just blown through in a lawsuit filed by one downtown public defender agency against another public defender agency and the City of Seattle.
At issue: The city's decision earlier this year to award Northwest Defenders Association a contract representing needy clients at Seattle Municipal Court, worth about $1.3 million a year over three years.
The losing bidder for that contract, the Defender Association, responded by filing a lawsuit in mid-June, claiming it was wrongfully denied the contract. The result: a lawsuit in which public money was being used (by the Defender Association) to sue two publicly financed entities (Northwest Defenders Association and the City of Seattle), which then had to defend themselves—with more public money.
The Defender Association had argued that it met the selection criteria and was the "best and least expensive" choice. But after losing its arguments in King County Superior Court, appealing twice, and ultimately landing before the Washington State Court of Appeals, court records show, the Defender Association filed a motion on July 26 to dismiss its own case, effectively conceding defeat.
City of Seattle budget director Beth Goldberg called the whole lawsuit "baseless," and said it cost the city around $108,000 to defend itself.
"The money could have gone for something else," Goldberg said. "It is real money. An average salary and benefits is typically around $100,000—that's someone working at a community center [or] another police officer."
Eileen Farley, executive director of the Northwest Defenders Association, agreed.
"Those are public defense dollars," she said. "Tax dollars. They should have gone to public defense." (She took pains to add, however, that the Northwest Defenders Association was represented in the lawsuit by a law firm that heavily discounted its fees, charging the public around $30,000.)
Lisa Daugaard, deputy director of the Defender Association, could not say how much her agency spent on the suit. "More than we wanted to," she admitted.